Friday, April 06, 2007


“Confusing the Air”

I’ve gotten into the habit of having lunch with Princess Diana. She doesn’t say much, just tilts her head in that shy unassuming way that’s her trademark. Ronald Regan, George Michael and JR of Dallas fame also join us. It all takes place at Tony’s in Town. It’s here I can buy a water pump, soggy French fries and garage sale worthy porcelain clowns caked in dust. Looking down on the whole scene is a collection of life-sized portraits of people that were everything in the 80’s.

Like Sables, Tony’s is loud. Without fail a black and white TV blares the miracle work of American preachers and the buzz of lunchtime chatter. The noise doesn’t bother me for one simple reason: I’m not responsible for it. I don’t have to attend to the guy that wants a meat pie “without meat” or wipe up the 3 year old’s spilt Fanta. Tony’s has become my place of solace. While sharing my thoughts with Di it dawned on me how normal life in Kabwe has become. Street fights don’t make me flinch nor does a woman carrying a chicken on her head seem out of the ordinary and scariest of all, the Coke is starting to taste like water. Not so average days seem average. My inability to see things fresh was reinforced by my parents visit. A pair of eyes to point out everything for the second time. As my mom put it, “National Geographic doesn’t lie” and I was subjected to an onslaught of elbows to the rib with each passing scene. The beauty of the market, babies wrapped to mothers backs, clusters of huts off the road: the energy of a small African town. The only thing missing was a yellow frame.

In an attempt to shed some light on life in Kabwe I’m going to touch on a couple things that don’t necessarily make the pages of National Geographic but represent my time here.

Hil and I live in a comfortable one-bedroom apartment in a gated community. Gated is a term used loosely, the gate is never closed and we have yet to see an attendant in the little booth. Along with the entrance there are a variety of other relics that remind you of a neighbourhood that once housed the residents of a booming mine town. Wide roads cling to strips of their original tarmac and a string of lampposts that haven’t seen a bulb in decades line the street. Everyday at 6am, 12, 2 and 10 a siren from the mine goes off reminding workers that have long left that it’s time to get a beer.

What makes our place unique is that we share it with 1000’s of friends. Cockroaches. Big ones, huge ones, fast and faster ones, jumpers, dish rack loiterers and even the odd albino have taken resident in our house. All of them juicy on impact. The first two months of our new home was spent grappling with the word “infestation”. Armed with Doom and a sandal we were vigilant. It began to look like we were walking on the walls as the death toll rose. The evening program was approached with such zeal that we highlighted feats such as the ambidextrous double kill while attending noodles on the stove or a naked mid shower kill. But such an offensive can only last so long. It reached a point where we viewed them with only a mild distaste. A “maybe later” attitude took hold. The urgency one reserves for dust bunnies.

The breaking point was “the neck incident”. Many of you know I’m a sporadic sleeper. Camp friends can report incidences of late night arguments with myself, and my closet had to be cleaned occasionally in childhood. Hil has had to tolerate countless nights. Which explains why the 3am report of a cockroach on my leg was so quickly dismissed. “You’re dreaming, go back to bed”. The boy who cried cockroach. Report two: “it’s on my neck” was no laughing matter. As though we had a wolf in our bed Hil went from supine to upright, had the mosquito net completely un-tucked and was brandishing a sandal in seconds. Sure enough, fresh from navigating my beard was a giant, quick moving cocky. A bedtime cockroach is different than your general floor or wall rider. First and foremost on ones mind is the volume of liquid, eggs and general gush a super sized cockroach contains. Second, the absorption qualities of cotton sheets. With skill that can only be obtained through months of practice we got him onto the linoleum floor where he met his maker.

This was the final straw. Previously we had taken to spraying corners and cupboards with Doom. Specialized attacks yield quite a few casualties and a few ants caught up in friendly fire, but it wasn’t enough. We needed to up the ante and Hil had just the thing. A self-spraying Doom bomb. A spray that requires you to turn the electricity off in your house and vacate it for several hours while poisonous gas penetrates every nook and cranny in your house. I have no clue the long-term effects of such a spray. I’m hesitant to google it in fear of finding images of deformed babies or a list of countries that banned it in the 60’s. What I do know is that for the most part our friends are gone. I can open a drawer and find an untouched spoon and walking around barefoot is now an option.

Sables has also experienced some recent hardships. A couple months ago we acquired “Jennifer” the pig, with a long-term goal of starting a small piggery on site. At the time of the purchase I was assured that pigs are easy to take care of: “they’ll eat anything”. I was reassured by visits to the nearby Makalulu Compound where many of the kids are from. Here neglected pigs roam free eating whatever scraps they can find and drink from puddles of sewage. The “iron stomach” theory seemed to hold. Sadly, Jennifer was not of the same elk of these pigs and died on Sunday evening of unknown causes. Early investigation points towards “onions” as the possible cause of death. I’m told bottle caps and burnt plastic are fine but not onions. So in place of class, thirty students took part in the disposal of a 90 pound carcass. Having not read Charlottes web or been privy to Babe the kids took the death fine. In their eyes she was a step closer to their plate. The one hang up was they were not allowed to eat her in case it was more than onions. It’s common for farmers to bury a sick animal and find it dug up the next morning and on its way to the market. Such stories prompted the decision to both bury and burn the big. The kids’ bitterness in this decision came out with repeated mimes gesturing the hand from the stomach to the mouth and shouts of “foodie”.

When they are not burying animals the kids continue to amuse me in the classroom. Yesterday’s was interrupted by Kelvin one of the older student’s who had had enough of the younger students stinking up the room with their gas. He took matters into his own hands and grabbed each suspect and began to individually sniff their butts. In the midst of apprehending Saviour, a 60 pound repeated offender I had to let Kelvin know that the policing of farts had to be done more gently and not during class. Kelvin looked up from the possible crime scene and madly replied, “but he is confusing the air!”.

In what may be the lowest point in my teaching career I have also begun showing episodes of McGyver season 3 to my students under the guise of exposing them to English. Although I have always been a fan of the show and can pawn it off to childhood nostalgia I’m amazed at how much Zambians have taken to this mullet wearing action hero. The week is full of repeated “Mcguyva” requests. When Friday rolls around the class is full with 30 plus kids gladly sitting through 25 minutes of dialogue to get to 5 minutes of turning a branch and K-way hood into a paddle.

80’s TV aside class continues to be a struggle with sporadic attendance. People need to eat, and if a grandmother needs help bringing things to the market or extra money for food you can hardly blame a child for missing class to do so. The result is a “drop in” classroom. That said, there are bits of hope. My crowning moment has been an act of vandalism. The words “cat”, “jug” and “rub” scrawled in charcoal along our outside wall - all words we learned in that morning’s class.

After a day of Sables evenings are often spent looking down. Books are a welcome escape. Magazines and newspapers are also highly valued and have an extended life span. On my last visit to the washroom I got caught up on the Liberal’s leadership race and every morning Hil works through a stack of Saturday Globes my dad brought, over Corn Flakes. Thanks to past experiences which included being stuck with a two book library in France (Nicholas Sparks, Rodanthe Nights & The Bridget Jones Diary), I came over with a limited stash of books.

The discovery of the Kabwe Municipal library, therefore, was big news. Grenada’s library had a range of classics the majority of which had a Toronto Public Library stamp. I was hoping Kabwe would offer something similar. My excitement quickly dissipated upon entering. I found what would be a great set for a prison library. Thanks to an unpaid electricity bill, patrons (inmates) are treated to a dark room which forces them to squint with their head cms from the page. The small rays of natural light that do infiltrate serve to only highlight the amount of airborne dust. Still feigning hoped I perused the half empty shelves. Although they had the odd book of interest a flip through them reveals brownish pages and assorted stains from the remnants of scotch tape patch up jobs. Adding insult, the only post 80’s books were 6 copies of “Mary Lou”, the Mary Lou Retton biography – all in pristine condition. And perhaps its most glaring fault, it doesn’t lend books, “cause they never come back”.

When written words don’t suffice (or the libraries closed) alcohol induced fun can be found 7 days a week thanks to Big Bite. This “it spot” is a multi-purpose venue acting as a bus stop for all major bus lines heading to Kabwe by day and a night club/ watering hole/ place of debauchery by night. The DJ at Big Bite caters to those with special needs. Songs are played multiple times should memory slip and the hearing impaired are treated to music so loud that it can be heard at our house 2kms away. The latter requires you to stick two wads of toilet paper in your ears before you hit the outside, speaker-less dance floor.

The whole scene feels a bit like lazer quest with sweaty bodies and black lighting. An unfortunate lighting scenario that makes me look like a glowing undercover agent. After a couple of drinks I’ll usually try my best to blend onto the dance floor. This rarely succeeds. Last time in the midst of some alcohol induced moves a co-worker came up and asked me “why aren’t you dancing?”. To which I sadly replied, “I am”.

By 2:30 all signs point to leaving. Beer bottles get slippery, shoulders stiffen and the next day’s ringing in your ear begins. The night rounds off at “Little Bite”, the cab of our regular driver who picks us up blaring equally loud music. Another day in Kabwe complete, head hits the pillow, ready for tomorrow’s 6am wake up call.

**It seems that North America wasn’t the only place that cared who shot JR. Kabwe has a suburb called Dallas which was apparently named after the hit television show.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


As a teacher I never thought I’d get a standing ovation. It’s a moment usually reserved for teachers that have paid their dues: taught 1000’s of lessons, endured countless Christmas concerts and have more dollar store mugs than the local Goodwill. Standing ovations belong in Chicken Soup for the Soul or on the Hallmark Channel (yes, it is available here in Zambia). Kids don’t stand on desks unless it’s Hollywood.

Kabwe is different.

To thank, is a buck toothed, greasy haired man named Ronaldinho: a footballer every child outside of North America idolizes. He appeared to me in one of the 100 or so Indian owned shops that line the streets of Kabwe. One stop shops in the truest sense. They have it all: aluminum pots, plastic combs, foam mattresses, fridges, “Pony” walkmans and assorted 80’s electronics, Titanic Lady Perfume, Asenal underwear (not to be confused with the Arsenal football club) and as it turns out at this particular shop – football posters. It didn’t take me long to make a decision. The classrooms current décor consisted of a hand painted alphabet framing the top of the room complemented by a couple of anti drug posters. My favourite features Martin Luther King who encourages kids to “Live the Dream Say no to alcohol and drug abuse”. Not sure if the second part was taken verbatim from one of his speeches. Realizing the severity of the current situation I decided to act. I bought two.

The next day in place of teaching the intricacies of the date including the sound TH makes in Thursday, figuring out what tomorrow is, yesterday was, and establishing that it is 2007, I revealed my purchases. The warm up: The Euro Stars poster, starring Totti, Shevchenko, Nistelrooy: the Gretzky’s for the rest of the world. No words spoken, I let the poster speak. Before it finished unraveling from my hands the verdict was in. Half asleep eyes woke and shouts of approval mixed in with a class full of clapping. Poster one was a huge success.

Like Springsteen heading into his second encore with Born in the USA I got ready to blow them away. Feeding off the energy from round 1 I stood on my desk to reveal poster two. Hands out stretched on the top corners of the poster I let it drop. Ronaldinho’s chiuaua mug filled the class on a poster the size of wall paper paneling. Pandemonium ensued – the class erupted. Not a single student was left sitting as ear piercing whistles and shouts of Ronaldhino filled the room.

It’s been months since the new additions and for the most part they’ve blended in. The students are able to focus on the blackboard. But every once in a while in the middle of figuring out where the Pacific Ocean is or the 6 times table I lose one of the kids. A play going on in their head. Waiting for a Ronaldinho pass.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Zigzagging Crack in the Earth

A trip to see the Victoria Falls starts in Lusaka: postcards, guidebooks, coffee table books, and even Zambian currency all grace its image. Every conceivable angle at every time of the day for the last couple of decades has been captured. Artist’s renditions, the falls at sunrise, sundown, up close, from a helicopter, with wildlife, without wildlife, in water color, they are all there. You would think this overdose of images would some how spoil seeing it in person. It doesn’t. The falls truly are an amazing site, stunning in its grandness. A postcard doesn’t make a thundering sound when you pull it off the rack and I have yet to find a guidebook that includes mist. It is a site that requires all of the senses and is truly deserving of being 1 of the 7 wonders of the world. Who brags about seeing the Harbor of Rio De Janerio? Adding to its appeal I was unable to find one wax museum or haunted house in the surrounding area.

The poster child for the falls is famous explorer David Livingstone. Livingstone is credited as being the first European to discover the falls. There is a museum in his honor, every gift shop sells books chronicling his adventures and there are no shortages of plaques telling you where he stood to tie his shoelace or sat down for tea. Based on the various tributes around town, including the town’s namesake one envisions David slashing solo through the deep bush. The statutes and plaques all show the same pose; rugged explorer standing alone, gazing out over un-chartered territory with one leg up triumphantly on a boulder or rock.

This was not the case.

Livingstone traveled with a posse that would rival Jay Z’s. 100’s of Tenzing Norgays joined him over the course of his many expeditions and like Tenzing Norgay the spotlight was only big enough for one. Names like Sir Edmund Hillary and David Livingstone sound better alone. On his final expedition in search of the source of the Nile River he had over 50 men with him. Not only did they carry all of his goods but on his final days as he grew sick they carried him and even made his own hut at each stop. Livingstone wasn’t even in fact the first person to find the falls. Records show that when he arrived back in 1855 Portuguese traders had all ready been around the area and no doubt would have seen the falls. The major difference between Livingstone and others who had preceded him was that he wrote extensively - and much of his work was published. Livingstone also had the financial connections to make such expeditions work. One has to wonder if the Portuguese traders had brought some ink whether we’d be seeing different statues around town. Rodriques, Zambia?

Livingstone issues aside Hil and I had much more important things on our mind for our visit. A week before our trip our friend Ed gave a run down of his time in Livingstone. We were shocked to hear that the highlight of his stay was “hanging out over the falls”. Ed proceeded to recount his experience hanging over the top of the falls including traversing slippery rocks, swimming against the current and finally jumping into a jacuzzi sized pool at the top where you see first hand where all that water goes as a guide holds your ankles. Any doubt we had in Ed’s story diminished when his laptop popped open with 100 plus thumbnails of pics documenting his experience. Sure enough, there he was “hanging out over the falls”. The rest of the week leading up to our trip was spent analyzing the effectives of our front crawl.

A week later we found ourselves taking the early bus to the falls in order to drop 45USD so that we could fill our laptop with pics. I felt assured by the meeting place for the experience; “The Royal Livingstone” a 400USD a night hotel. This quickly diminished when we meet our guide who introduced himself as Eustess which with his accent comes out as “Useless”. An unfortunate name for the man that would be holding our ankles at the top of the falls. Not surprisingly everything went without a hitch and the gap between perceived and actual risk was wider than the falls themselves. The current that we so feared could have been out-swam by anyone who’d achieved a badge in any of the primary colors (including yellow). And though the current is strong at the top, the holding of the ankles is more for your peace of mind than and actual risk of going over.

So here it is, the condensed thumbnail collection:

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Whatever happened to Bubbles?

I believe the saying “A picture is worth a 1000 words”. Some are worth more than that. The picture I’ve attached is worth 1002 words. There are two very important words missing: Dawson’s & Creek. In what can only be described as a once in a lifetime opportunity, Hil and I spent the evening watching trashy American television with a 6 month old chimp (wearing diapers).

Making dreams come true was The Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage. A one of a kind orphanage and sanctuary for chimpanzees. The whole operation started by accident back in the early 80’s when an orphan chimp was confiscated from poachers in the Congo. The baby chimp was taken to Zambian farmers Dave and Sheila Siddle who had a reputation in the area for nursing sick calves back to health. Twenty years and 3000 plus acres later the Chimfunshi Wildlife orphanage has become a major operation in chimp care. New chimps are brought in every year and the sanctuary vows that they won’t release any of them until they are guaranteed they will be safe. Which means the Congo’s civil war will need to end and baby chimps will have to stop looking cute and cuddly. So, never.

Michael Jackson wasn’t the only one who felt he needed a pet chimp. They get “Bubbles” from all over the world, each with their own story. Chimps like Koko: found in an airport luggage area subdued with vodka and stuffed in a shoebox. Or Madonna who lived the life of luxury with a Senegalese millionaire complete with her own room and a full time maid. The first couple weeks at the sanctuary were difficult for Madonna who was used to bottled water and full course meals. As is the case with most animals (including humans) they grow up, aren’t as cute, eat more food and need more space and learn the word “no”. Jane Goodal even got into the action bringing in a chimp from Tanzania whom locals had trained to work as a bartender at a watering hole in the bush. When Max came in he was a chain smoking alcoholic, but great with the other chimps.

Rounding off the 50+ chimp collection are a handful of dogs, cats and Billy, a one thousand five hundred pound plus orphaned Hippo. Billy was discovered at his dead mom’s body at the tender age of 10 days old. Hil and I tried not to think about the fact that Hippos have the distinction of causing the most deaths of the big five while we peered at him awkwardly squished into his oversize bath tub, 2 feet from the entrance to the Sanctuary.

Because of the size of the operation Chimfunshi relies on donations, school groups and tourists to keep things running. You can observe the chimps at the outskirts of the sanctuary where they have feeding cages bordering natural enclosures of several square kilometers or at an orphanage where younger, newer and trouble making chimps stay. The first thing that struck me was how human they were, which explains why they are the choice animal for Hollywood to send to space and used car dealers see it fit to dress them as clowns to flog 86 Pintos.

Contrary to what we think, animals weren’t put on earth to entertain us and pose for pictures. This lesson is learned on your first visit to the zoo. The same holds true for animals in the wild. By day five of my time in the Serengeti highlights were confined to animals eating and defecating – two jobs they do on a daily basis. Chimfunshi is no exception and feeding time is when the chimps were at their best.

For lunch the chimps are ushered into cages and workers toss a bunch of tomatoes, oranges, cabbage and unidentifiable vegetables in their direction. The whole process begins with high pitched screams from the chimps all lobbying and fighting for their veg of choice and ends looking like the scene of a good high school food fight with scraps of food littered around the cage and on the chimps. We were also able to observe the chimps at the edges of the sanctuary where the guide goes over rehearsed lines with the zeal of a museum lifer. Most interesting is the hierarchy which forms within chimp groups. Before we came a couple of the other male chimps had teamed up on Kambo, the Alpha Male of the group we were watching to gain supremacy. The plan was successful and Kambo disappeared for a week to lick his wounds. Unfortunately the motley crew that remained couldn’t decide on a successor. For the week that Kambo was away mass confusion took over. Several runs at leadership backfired and the result was chimp anarchy. A week later, Kambo returned with a new look. With all of the hair ripped off his arms to display his bulging biceps he systematically pummeled the mutiny one by one. The day we were there Kambo was in fine form. He sat perched in the middle of all the action, hairless arms protruding, looking over the others with the air of a mafia boss that doesn’t need anyone to do his dirty work.

Sadly, the driving force behind Chimfunshi, Dave passed away this past year, leaving the operation of the sanctuary to his wife and their youngest daughter Janet. Because our campsite was Janet’s front yard we spent the evenings becoming acquainted with her and our interest in this Homo Sapien rivaled that of the chimps. The youngest of three with sibling in South Africa and England it seems the pressure is on Janet to keep things running. A month before we showed up her husband, now ex, left because he “couldn’t hack it”. As she divulged her life story on the first night it was hard not to feel a little sorry for her. It became apparent over the course of the evening that there wasn’t much outside of DsTV, chimps and a nightly drink in Chimfunshi life. The first night we overheard her talking excitedly to her mom (who lives 5 minutes away) raving about the movie her nieces and nephews all liked. When she returned from the call she seemed laissez faire as to what we watched, even offering up the remote. Her indifference was exposed at 6:59 when the timer she had set turned to the movie channel showing Pixar’s Madagascar.

Other than her evening program everything in her life is chimps. The degree of this showed night two when we found ourselves back in her living room watching TV. Conversation ranged from her grievances with doctoral students with pages of credentials who have never “wiped the bum of a chimp” to her request to her workers to hold no grudges against a chimp if it mangles her. Though you had no doubt as to her intentions, one had to question how natural it was to have a baby chimp on her lap wearing diapers with eyes glued to another Dawson and Joey break up.

Most affirming for me was the drive back on the last day when you saw the impact the sanctuary has had on the community. The 18km road towards Chimfunshi was full of locals at various check points arranging orders for barrels of tomato’s, cabbage and other assorted chimp food. The whole process was long and tedious and could easily be avoided by buying in town at a way cheaper price, but they insist on doing it this way. In addition to buying directly from their neighbors the sanctuary has several locals employed in meaningful jobs and have even supported one to further his education in primates at Cambridge.

And with people like that, rest assured Bubbles is going to be OK

Friday, December 08, 2006

Galactica: The Battle for Saturn

It all came back. Pete, Joe and I crouched in the family basement under the white, hole-punched ceiling boards, our faces inches from the TV with eyelids on hold. That morning the scheduling nightmare for any parent, known as March break, had brought the family to the Royal Ontario Museum. While fiddling with the brightly colored tin ROM badges (a highlight with any ROM visit) Dad managed to horde several complimentary ROM editions of the Toronto Star at the entrance. Inside were ballots for a special museum draw. Somewhere between the incased mummy and the T-Rex fossils names were scrawled. As family myth goes Dad was involved in a last minute dash in order to get our fist full of ballots in before the 2:00 o’clock deadline. Upon his return, as though on cue, my name got called over the PA. Next thing I know 7 year old me is being hoisted to the museum security counter to work though a skill testing question. Aided by a collection of fingers and the ROM employee mouthing the number 20 I breezed through a grade 8 worthy math question. Thanks to this nascent mathematical genius returning home, on “the better way”, with us was a giant box. The contents: a Commadore 64.

That night, a keyboard thicker than a Websters dictionary was shuttled from lap to lap in the Shouldice household. Sticking out of it, the one and only game it came with: Jupiter Lander. Countless hours were spent attempting to land a lunar ship on what appeared to be a mountain with the top sliced off. A task that required delicate use of the I, J, K, M keys to ensure a safe landing. The moving squares mesmerized us.

Twenty plus years later I watched as a group of kids shared that same mesmerized look. Eyes glazed all jockeying for a turn. This time they didn’t need to know order of operations or stuff any ballot boxes. The Fujitech Super 5 computer which has a sticker that tells me it is “Equipped for 2000” was a donation from a local drug store. In place of moon landings were the letters J and F scrolling across the screen at a dead turtles pace. The “game” Type Master blew their minds. Chilfuya in particular was thrilled when he could begin using his middle fingers when D and K were added to the mix. The results graph which displayed his 22% accuracy made the effort all the more worthwhile.

National Geographic tells me the number of personal computers in Sub Saharan Africa is 12 per thousand people in 2003. Although Kabwe with a population of 250, 000 would probably bring the average down, it is clear that computer use is growing substantially. In Kabwe alone there are three web cafes including one in a BP gas station. In an unofficial survey conducted by my wandering eyes the most frequent urls are e-mail sites followed closely by the Manchester United home page and TV evangelist websites. Which leads me to wonder how a town where probably 50% of the population don’t have access to running water or electricity can possibly fill internet cafes sufficiently to merit 3 of them, and populate them frequently enough to cause me to queue just to access them.

Over the weeks our new computer at Sables slowly revealed its true gems. The biggest discovery has been a hidden folder full of second rate games: PC Man, not to be confused with PAC Man, Galactica: The Battle for Saturn, as well as a Formula One Racing game sampler. Together they have eliminated any notion of a Sables kid being able to type 8 words per minute. What one might call a flaw in programming has made Galactica one of the most popular games with the keyboard-challenged in the group. The oversight allows you to tuck your ship in the corner of the screen and fire your missiles avoiding the enemies onslaught guaranteeing winning each level.

In an effort to go beyond games that require a woodpecker type motion with your index finger we have started working with programs that involve a mouse. Works of art are being created at a rapid pace thanks to the paint program. The fill option nearly brought down the house. I’m usually summoned after 20 minutes of intense color selection to admire their creation. Deciphering these pictures requires an imagination one usually reserves for clouds. I find myself using the kindergarten teacher line, “Tell me about your picture” to avoid calling a pink with maroon striped person a house.

Not surprisingly the staff have taking a liking to the recent advance in technology. Kebby under the guise of “helping” will usually fit in a couple of rounds of Galactica each day. The odd time I’ll give a quick run through of the computers features. During one of these lessons Sestina wanted to know what the card icon on the desktop meant. Midway through explaining solitaire I froze in fear with visions of 1000s of wasted hours. Muttering something about boring I discarded it and the equally menacing Free Cell permanently.

Even though the screen saver still prompts shouts of “it’s all gone black” and the double click of the mouse draws out the visible tongue of concentration, I do believe Kabwe is becoming quite a computer literate town. I’m glad to be doing my part, though I’ve had trouble getting the exact dates of the next Galactica tournament.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

most frequently called names in Kabwe

4. Santa Claus

3. Gorilla

2. Jesus

1. Chuck Norris

Friday, October 20, 2006

"When it starts it will spread like fire. The business of a bicycle is definitely on."

Mr G. Zulu, PTA Chairperson Twafane Community School
Closing words of the innaugural Community Bicycle Association meeting

The Veggies of Labour

Kabwe’s walls are full of artwork. Hand painted signs telling me what brand of soda to drink or cleaner to use. I’ve become quite attached to these walls: a welcome change from the giant synthetic billboards that have taken over most cities. In Kabwe, computers have yet to upstage steady hands capable of neurosurgery. The art form has even extended to local businesses: hotels, stores and NGO’s all have a title. These are my favorite as the artist isn’t confined to the scrolling C of Coke or Colgate’s color scheme. I’d like to think they take some artistic license and stray away from Times New Roman font or pick a color of their choice when placing these letters. For the last couple of evenings I’ve tried to be an architect of letters. Armed with a pencil and ruler I’m attempting to create a scroll of 52 letters across the top of a classroom. The building I’m is surrounded by a wall, which also naturally has a title. It reads: Kara Counselling Sables Drop in Centre, my home for the next year.

A centre for Orphaned and Vulnerable Children (OVC’s), Sables was originally created to address the influx of children left parentless during the HIV/ AIDS pandemic. Over its short two year history its job description has expanded. As the phrase goes, “everyone is either infected or affected” and Sables has evolved into an open drop in centre to any child in need. The children range in age from 7 to 17 years old. Children like Saviour, a single orphan who lives with his mother and 6 other children, or 12 year old Eyan who is being raised by his 17 year old brother. Perhaps most in need are ones like Mwanza and a handful of other regulars who are permanently on the streets. Sable’s mission statement is “To assist children at risk to become responsible and productive citizens”. For some it is as simple as a place to go for a game of football or the odd meal while with others the centre provides day to day essentials right down to soap to scrub their clothes. A surrogate parent in the form of a drop in centre.

At the heart of making “responsible and productive citizens” is a classroom. The hope is that the children can attend school at Sables so that when they are ready to return to a standard school they will have a foundation to build on. In principal Zambia has free universal education. Reading through the governments fancy brochure you would think every child has a desk with their nametag on it. The reality is that many of the community schools are understaffed and the teachers are underpaid. The situation means that kids who show up barefoot or without notebooks are a natural first to go when it comes to bringing numbers down. Sables is OK with exposed toes and empty hands. Most importantly we accept sporadic attendance living up to the “drop in” of our title.

Days before the start of a new term, the resident teacher Eva left for a job interview in Namibia. She was supposed to be gone for three days. Four weeks later and she still hasn’t come back. So on the Tuesday following labour day I found myself in front of a rag tag group of kids who all stood in unison and said “good morning sa” when I entered the class. Formalities out of the way we got straight to the business of correcting backwards s’s and upside down e’s. By far the biggest challenge has been the base of knowledge we’re working off of; over three quarters of the class couldn’t write their own name on the first day. Attempts ranged from long free flowing letters worthy of a Jackson Pollock painting to small ransom note letters copied over so many times they almost went through the page.

Joining us in class is Cestina, a social worker for Sables who translates parts of the lesson at her discretion, in between sending text messages to her various suitors. Lines like “Billy take the eraser out of your mouth” and “Douglas, put your catapult (slingshot) away”. Cestina also helps with classroom management. It’s not uncommon for her to reprimand the class in Bemba. The content of these rants remains a mystery to me. My gut tells me it is more than shut up as it evokes a fear that results in 0 fidgeting and complete silence.

After four weeks at Sables I have yet to use normal as an adjective when describing a day. Most glaring are the outfits my students wear. Unlike McDonalds we service no shirts and no shoes. Our dress code policy or lack of one becomes most apparent on my bike to work as I pass children walking to “regular” schools. Seas of pink, blue and green uniforms weaving through dusty roads: a sight worthy of a Tide commercial. When my students do decide to wear a shirt it gets heavy rotation. Fergus advertised as “Best Kisser” for three weeks straight. We try and curb the effects of prolonged wearing by offering soap and sinks to do their laundry which results in fantastic drying out outfits. Mwale Tembo’s ranks as one of the best: A long sleeved rugby shirt configured into a pair of pants. Legs through the arms with the neck area folded into his waist creating a spandex into diapers look. We also have showers on site which result in the occasional naked cartwheel.

When we can no longer figure out the shirts original color post-wash we have a stash of fresh t-shirts that we give out. At my first distribution 30 kids were given matching Snoopy t-shirts promoting the “Walk for Diabetes”. The short end of the stick during these giveaways goes to the smaller boys who usually get stuck with the half full sleeve/half tank top shirt that would look great on a ten year old girl. Footwear is equally sparse. Banabus’s footwear has been reduced to one ankle high dress shoe held together by a bent nail. Not a big deal considering the sole on his feet (think a black dried out version of Homer Simpson’s feet; puffy toes all the same length) would rival a pair of Doc Martins.

The “is this really happening feeling” accompanied by a huge smile doesn’t end at the outfits. It’s not uncommon for a game of ultimate to be put on hold as one of the players takes a leak a step from the sideline. Pencils clean ears as much as they write. Jackson opts for matchstick (ignition end). A mangled rollerblade provide hours of entertainment. And the classroom seems to be a magnet for foreign metal objects. Take away the wardrobes and all the oddity’s and kids are kids. They believe in magic. It takes them 1.3 seconds to notice you’ve gotten a haircut. There are quiet ones, loud ones, funny ones means ones. They all need to know they are cared for. And of course, any sound created without your mouth results in fits of laughter. A fart is universal.

When class wraps at 11:00 pencils/Q-tips get exchanged for pitchforks as the students work on a newly formed garden in the backyard. It is during the sweat drenched tilling and digging of the ground when the site’s former life reveals itself. Two years ago Sables was serving up beers and shots as a bar. Based on the amount of broken glass in the ground it was successful one too. Luckily, when it comes to alcohol in Zambia the big sellers are Chibuku (“Shake Shake”) and Mwentenke (“The Boredom Breaker”). Both are garden friendly drinks as they come in one liter cardboard milk cartons that biodegrade.

The garden is governed by one rule: if you work you eat. The line up for our first harvest includes cabbage, rape (a type of green that will grow with minimal love) and tomatoes. As of late the kid’s work ethic has dwindled. When this happens I’ve had to resort to unconventional methods of encouragement. The carrot is my digital camera. I have yet to meet an Africa child that doesn’t want “copies”. Like a dad trying to coax his reluctant daughter down the bunny ski hill I whip around the garden egging the kids on with a Nikon aimed in their direction. My laptop now stores way too many posed garden shots. As long as the sun keeps working we should be benefiting from the “veggies of our labour” and eating glass free veggies around the time church parking lots start filling with fir trees in Canada.

In addition to school and seeds the kids are provided with other essentials. Taking care of Maslow’s bottom rung we provide two meals a day. A breakfast of porridge or rice is served seven days a week along with a hearty lunch. Looking for some street cred I usually try and eat lunch with the kids. The staple of a Zambian diet is nshima; a white substance made of maize that looks like a close relative of mash potatoes. With nshima the challenge arises not with the taste (cardboard) or even the consistency (watered down playdo) but rather the process of getting it from plate to palate. In order to eat the white stuff it is rolled vigorously with one hand until it resembles a ping pong ball and then dipped into whatever oil drenched side dish it has come with. The more advanced eaters will stick their thumb in after their roll creating a shallow bowl for optimal scoop. The problem arises with the fact that by noon hour I look Mexican from the wrist out. A major factor in this transformation is the shaking of forty little hands every morning. Of little relief is the communal bucket of water intended to wash your hands with as the water’s transparency is lost after a child’s first hand dip. Every forkless lunch hour has turned into a game of Russian roulette with my stomach.

Afternoons at Sables tend to be a little more ad hoc. The schedule says sports: a term open to interpretation. Without fail a ridiculously long cord winds its way from the staff room through the building to a collection of benches outside. Propped on one of the benches is a giant stereo system that dominated every teenagers Christmas wish list in 1983. Volume dial turned clockwise to its limit the kids then partake in the “sport” of dancing. Anything from Shania Twain to the local star Chameleon makes these kids move. Now more than ever I am convinced that black people are born with more joints than any white person (excluding Michael Jackson). Right now the song that brings pandemonium is Shakira and Wyclef’s “Hips Don’t Lie”. Its catchy chorus seems to warrant repetitive play. Yesterdays tally: 8 times in one afternoon.

Thanks to a donation of discs from MEC I’ve also been able to introduce ultimate with varying degrees of success. The field where we play seems to be the perfect conduit for wind making even the most solid throws pancake into the ground. One highlight has been Hakeem, a child who has trouble stringing a sentence together but can miraculously flick the disc. Every throw followed by uncontrollable jumping and laughter.

Facility wise the place has everything for a sports complex including full basketball and volleyball courts. Although you get the odd child practicing hail marys or a 3 man game of volleyball, both courts will forever be eclipsed by the two football pitches on the grounds. I’m reminded of those t-shirts that they would sell at the Muskoka Store proclaiming that a sport or hobby “is life” and “the rest is just details”. I never bought into fly fishing or ringette being so important to one individual but can assure you that it holds true for football.*** To date a day hasn’t gone by where a game of football is not played.

When it is too hot for the real pitch they are on a little concrete field playing bottle cap football. Any male who graduated from grade six will recognize it as an advanced version of penny hockey. The game is played on a miniature pitch completely outlined with charcoal with the bottle caps acting as players. A rounded piece of charcoal is the ball and two batteries, rocks or chunks of scrap metal demark the nets. The game has everything regular football has minus head butts to the chest and announcers yelling a drawled out “gooooooal”. The current champ is Maxwell who travels with a Chibuke container full of caps. His collection features several teams, each cap fitted with colored cardboard and adorned with names like “Beckham” and Zidane”.

Bottle caps are also used for drafts or touch n go (checkers). A game you see being played on makeshift cardboard boards and slabs of scrap wood throughout Kabwe. In an effort to go beyond mere hopping I recently introduced chess, all the pieces indicated by symbols written on the inside of the cap. A few days after teaching the game I noticed that sounds were accompanying each game. Bishops made a “shhhhhhh” sound, a knight sounded like a door unlocking and pawns went “te”. I didn’t realize the origins of these sounds until a few days later when I taught the game to a new set of kids. Midway through the lesson I realized I was subconsciously using sound affects to explain the various moves. Blind man’s chess. Volume aside it is working quite well and the kids are slowly learning the carnage that a queen can cause.

When the day begins to wrap up the boys go in different directions. Many will go back to a caregiver be it a grandmother or auntie or in the odd case both parents for the evening. The kids who live on the street head to town. They usually settle in a closet of concrete behind a local bar called “Da Niggaz Den”. By 8:00 the next morning there is a small congregation of kids on the cement pitch playing bottle cap football – ready for a new day.

I failed to mention something about the walls of Sables. They are not perfect. The alphabet has hit a snag. The “S” is destroying me. No matter how many measurements I make it continues to come out flat, slightly askew. The outside wall also faces challenges. Two of the cinderblocks were knocked out of place and thanks to a worker who would make a horrible puzzler they were put back upside down. The top of the A now pierces through the R. I’ve adopted both of these as a metaphor for my time at Sables. Like the lives of children we work with things have been thrown off. Measurements have been misjudged a few bricks knocked out of place. But like the walls it’s not too late.

Paint is a forgiving medium.

***still not convinced? Google Amelia Bolanios

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Cost of Terror

Terror isn’t cheap. $500 dollars for a ton of ammonium nitrate. UK to Pakistan direct flights. Yes, Bin Laden is a millionaire but surely even his bank account must be dwindling with all the tunnel digging and wigs. I think we can agree that freezing foreign bank accounts has been futile. The crux of the problem seems to be how they’re getting the money in the first place.

Fact: Watches are big business. Swatch, Timex, Rolex are all multi million dollar corporations. Last year alone Rolex had a gross profit of 68 million dollars.

Is Bush looking in the wrong place?

Orders are now being taken for Binny’s (with flashing “I l♥ve you")

1 + 1 = 3 WHY NOT?

It is one of those quotes that ends up in self help seminars. You’ve seen it at your local card shop, adorned with rock climbers mid ascent or a long winding road. It reads: it’s not the destination but the journey that matters. I don’t know who originally said it. I have a sneaking suspicion their destination wasn’t that great. Buffalo instead of New York. What I do know, is that the person responsible never took a bus in Zambia.

This past week I spent 10 hours on two buses trying to get from A (Kabwe) to B (Chipata). It was to do research but not of the academic sort. A library didn’t figure into the plans. Nor was a literature review necessary. I was studying the business of bicycle taxis. Lesson one came within the first 10 minutes of the journey. In Zambia it is all about the B.

A bus operator’s manual in Zambia should read:
Find a medium sized bus. Make sure it is imported. Chinese lettering on the side is preferred to indicate its former glory (think bingo halls or the employee shuttle service at Euro Disney). It should look as though it can’t exceed 50 miles per hour. Fill all of the seats. Fold down chairs in the centre aisle. Fill them. Once human cargo is secure add additional luggage. The size of the overhead bin is only a guideline, larger objects like full size suitcases will fit. Having luggage held is more important than secured as it capitalizes on the dead space above the passenger’s heads. Add babies. Pre boarding arrangements should be made with all mothers so that one is always wailing while the others breastfeed. Once loaded (difficulty breathing, walls bulging) depress gas pedal fully. Release foot at destination.

To get the loading process right it usually takes 20 minutes to 2 hours. Once completed the effects are immediate. First to go is any notion of personal space. This usually happens as you pass the “Welcome to Kabwe – City of Salvation - Jesus is King” sign. All notions of elbow, arm, foot, leg etiquette are scrapped. Once you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that your seatmate’s body heat will be a part of the trip the physical effects of being compressed in a small space become apparent. By far the worse is the forceful connecting of knees. Both neighbors legs working together to create a lower body vice. With thighs together in a way that males avoid, I find my mind usually drifts during these trips. If not to the frequency in which these buses crash (Zambia Times August 29th 2006: “6 die in mini bus accident”) to the possible physical effects of maintaining a cramped body position for a duration of two hours. I spent the majority of this last trip trying to piece together a 20/20 segment I’d seen years ago. John Stossel’s voice rang clear but I couldn’t come up with the name of the condition people are routinely dying from on long flights from lack of movement. I do remember that one way to avoid it is to take frequent trips down the aisle to the washroom. In this case lack of a washroom, or aisle for that matter, made this impossible. I had to settle for toe wiggles and a couple of sets of neck stretches. The latter giving me the appearance of being fascinated with dry season’s colorless landscape. One redeeming feature is that the medium sized buses are equipped with a tape player. All of my discomfort was appropriately accompanied by Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers.

Upon arriving in Lusaka you’re dropped at the city bus station where the taxi drivers and bus conductors play a game of rush the clueless white guy. All lobbying to fill their bus/ secure a ride, the scene resembles a camera-less paparazzi. Fearful of permanent damage inflicted in stage one I supersized round two. The greyhound style buses resemble giant moving walls with rearview mirrors that belong in department store change rooms. Like many transport vehicles in Zambia it had been imported and probably failed to meet the requirements of its host country.

The particular bus I rode had been re-branded for the Zambian market. It was now part of the Zoom Bus Lines fleet with “you snooze you loose” written proudly on the back of the bus and all employee uniforms. I struggle to figure out how this might be a selling point. I’m not particular fond of a place that won’t hesitate to leave me waiting in line at the bathroom during a pit stop. Luckily I didn’t have to worry about this. By the time I made my way to the front of the bus for the one and only pit stop the engine revved and started off with the door open. One frantic passenger (a snoozer no doubt) had to make a running leap onto the bus while trying to zipper his fly.

Like trip one, the bulk of my time was spent writing my obituary. This time lack of room was exchanged for doubts in the driver’s coordination. A twenty something droopy eyed character that looked like he should be bumming cigarettes outside Hasty Market. Most concerning was that I never saw him blink. “God is in Control” was written directly behind his seat in giant silver lettering. I found this reassuring as I had no faith in droopy. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Ten minutes into the trip a gentleman in a suit stood up and led a 5 minute sermon delivered with the same zeal you’d expect at Yonge and Dundas on a Saturday afternoon. Although it wasn’t in English I’d like to think he passed on the collective sentiment that shaving a half an hour off our time wasn’t worth the risk of making headlines.

Appearance aside he also proved to be a brake minimalist. Break neck speed was combined with the recklessness of the high school parking lot at lunch hour: the sense of urgency one finds with a car packed with teens in need of a DQ blizzard. Every corner was handled as though we were on a one way street. Had the road had a centre dividing line it would have run directly beneath the bus for the majority of the trip. The end result was a marathon game of chicken with 60 plus unwilling participants. The row of TV’s stayed blank throughout the trip and no music accompanied the chorus of crying babies so I was left only with the previous trips entertainment. “You were always on my mind” a fitting song to have stuck in my head. Seven hours and one sore neck later we arrived. Chipata, “a lively, friendly place”.

Within minutes of arriving I had found what I was looking for. Bicycles. 1000’s of them. All of which were close relatives of the Humber (The only exceptions were one or two mountain bikes ridden on the lowest gear making the riders legs move ridiculously fast). Most importantly there were bicycles of the carrying kind. Sacks of charcoal. Oil barrels. Slabs of wood configured into an x across the top bar. Ladies with babies wrapped on backs. Men with chickens clutched in hand. Everything and everyone seemed to move with a pair of 28 inch wheels below.

Bus trip forgotten, I jumped at the opportunity to take my first trip. 500 kwacha took me a distance of 1 km from town to the hostel. In addition to the standard “roadster” features this particular ride had a sense of flare which centered on a “more is better philosophy”: Two giant steel bells; Four rearview mirrors sprouting from the handlebar; A homemade cushion to combat bumps; and spokes plastered in a collection of reflectors. The final touch: a mud flap on the rear wheel that read: 1+1=3 WHY NOT?. I had been in Chipata for 10 minutes and already I felt that anything was possible.

For the next three days I immersed myself in bike culture. Although I had all the information in front of me it wasn’t always in the language I needed. This was realized after a good 10 minute conversation with a rider. I ended our chat with the statement that he likely didn’t understand a word of what I was saying, to which he answered with a convincing but clueless “yes”. Attempts at universal sign language also proved inadequate and often resulted in a miming performance in front of a crowd of curious onlookers. Even with the language barrier, however, I was able to piece together what I was looking for: the fees, who is providing and using the service, what works, what doesn’t etc. I spent a considerable amount of time at the “stations” - designated areas where as many as 30 riders waited for customers. And of course over two dozen trips to experience the service first hand.

It was impossible not to close my eyes and picture a similar service taking off in Kabwe. In many ways Kabwe is far more suited for bike culture. The paved roads are still relatively in tact thanks to the glory days of the mines and Kabwe also has an unusually flat landscape. Many of the roads also have a large shoulder on the side which aid in avoiding bike to vehicle mash ups. In contrast, Chipata’s main street breaks into two enormous hills. One of the main markets is situated at the bottom of one hill. Going up requires the strength of Hercules while going down you feel like a Hot Wheel - In place of an orange track is an inconsistent rock strewn road. The roads are also without shoulders forcing the two modes of transportation to share an already skinny route.

Frustrated with my inability to communicate by miming, on day two I decided to move up the ranks and meet some of the movers and shakers in Chipata. First stop police headquarters. At the main desk I inquired who I could speak with and was promptly sent to the traffic offices. They listened to my story but were unable to help explaining that the Commanding Officer was the only person who could assist me. In order to arrange an appointment with the #1 I would first need to speak to the second in command. As though on cue, the top dog walked by at mention of his name, followed by the number two. Three stops and 10 minutes later I’m hanging out with E.L. Mushondwa – Commanding Officer, in his office lounging on his couch like an old friend (with the giant safe only partially obscured by his desk). In exchange for discussing accident rates and bike related issues I told him how Canada was. Although specific numbers were difficult I was assured “bash ups do occur”. Officer Mushondwa seemed supportive of the taxis on all fronts except one. Chipata is a border town with Malawi. In order to avoid border taxes it is quite common to pay a bicycle taxi to take your TV or other high priced item across. This illegal movement of goods and sometimes people is often cited as the catalyst for the bicycle taxis business as it supports a bicycle culture. The term “Boda Boda” is a shortened version for “Border Border” which the riders shout when soliciting customers. Officer Mushondwa also shed some light on Chipata’s bicycle licensing system. Prior to leaving his office I was told I must go to the Municipal Council, the originators and enforcers of the tax. If I wanted the full story I would have to track down the Chief Administrative Officer.

Four offices later (with an average waiting time of under a minute per office) I’m with Mr. Moyo, Chief Administrative Officer discussing bicycle taxi licenses. I would like to attribute it to luck or my ability to smooth talk but it was quite clear: Chipata is home to the world’s quickest bureaucracy. Thanks to a local government act it seems municipal councils were granted permission to raise money on their own accord. In a town full of bicycles what better way to get some extra spending money then to start charging them for owning one. One usually associates a license being preceded by a test where you display a skill level, whether it be parking between two pylons or scraping off plaque without making gums bleed. In Chipata there is no need to display any competence on your bike. Simply dole out 8000 Kwacha (about 2 US) per year and your bicycle is legal for the road and you are a registered bicycle user. Don’t get one, and risk being fined 20 000 Kwacha and an additional 8 000 Kwacha for the license. Between March to July of this year over five thousand tiny stickers had been sold.

Two weeks prior to my visit, Levy made a stop in Chipata. In full campaign mode he announced that bicycle licenses (a money making initiative he encouraged) were being abolished. I’m hoping he’ll forgive me for knocking his lack of issues in my last post. The council didn’t seem too pleased with the announcement. In Mr Moyo’s words “he is a lawyer, he knows how to get away with this stuff”.

The most efficient bureaucracy trend continued for the rest of my stay. Sure some threw out minor obstacles. Luangwa Bicycles Ltd maker of Eagle bicycles wouldn’t give a tour of the factory until the right personnel was present. But once inside I was given full access of the plant and even a souvenir sticker to go home with. The statistics and census office of the local government insisted on a written request for information. As I headed out the door I was handed a blank piece of paper and directed to write as a name and postal code were rhymed off. Next thing I know I am sitting in a room full of staff surrounded by maps of Chipata with the letter I had written minutes ago signed, stamped and sitting in a folder on the table next to us.

The trip’s highlight took place on the third day. Thanks to a giant painted mural I learned that Chipata had its own radio station; 99.6 The Breeze. After the previous days success I figured they might be worth a visit. Because my visa was extended in Chipata as a tourist I had to be careful how I presented myself. Thus Mark West, PhD student from Canada specializing in sustainable transportation was born. Like everywhere else I’d been, the first meeting didn’t sound promising. After the sales pitch the secretary directed my eyes to the advertising/ political message rates. 420 000 Kwacha per half an hour didn’t fit into my budget. Then in classic Chipata fashion, head announcer Memory walked in. She had just returned from the International Aids Conference in Toronto. Memory immediately took to my story. Mr. West was scheduled to hit the airwaves at 7:30am the next morning on Memory’s call in radio show.

As soon as I entered the studio I had to question what I was getting into. The mom and pop operation façade the office presented evaporated as soon as I saw where they recorded. The Breeze housed a full studio with tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear dominating the whole back area. Even more intimidating was hearing the smooth radio friendly voice of Memory cueing the songs prior to our show. Butterflies in high gear I tried to downplay the whole situation. I asked one of the employees, “who listens to The Breeze?” hoping it was a question that could be answered with one hand. His response of “everyone” didn’t help. Nerves aside the show started at 7:30am as planned. Based on the number of callers way more than five people listen to local radio. Callers weighed in on the issues in English and the local dialect, Nyanja. Topics discussed ranged from why females don’t ride bicycles, safety issues with passengers to critical mass rides in Toronto and rickshaws in India. The crowning moment of my radio career came that afternoon long after the show ended when I was recognized by a local from the show. Hoping for some feedback I asked how the show was to which he responded “It was really nice and I wanted to call but I had no talk time”. I’ll take it.

On the way back I couldn’t help but feel excited about the prospects of a bicycle business in Kabwe. Accompanied by R Kelly (tape flipped twice) my thoughts were stuck on making it happen. It hardly seems a difficult task now. If 1+1 = 3. Why not?

I didn’t have an answer.

** Deep-veined thrombosis (DVT) or "economy class syndrome" - a condition frequently caused by long periods spent in cramped conditions. It kills dozens of airline passengers each year.