“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.