Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Window on the World 

I really didn’t expect Africa to have such an impact. The animals, yes; the land and its people, no.

We went, first and foremost, to visit our son and daughter-in-law. We’d have gone to whatever country he’d chosen as the place to start his teaching career – the fact that it was Zambia, home to some of the best national parks for wildlife viewing in Africa (the Bradt guide argues that South Luangwa is perhaps THE best), was a bonus – a very welcome one, but a bonus nonetheless.

Most of the national parks are, by their very nature, remote, and many have airstrips nearby; I imagine most visitors other than those on extended overland trips arrive by air and are driven only the last few kilometres to the safari lodges. Only if you already have a base in Zambia and own a 4 x 4 would you voluntarily spend hours or days of valuable holiday time negotiating bumpy, dusty roads and dirt tracks, dodging pot-holes sometimes almost the width of the road.

But those who fly almost direct to their luxury safari lodge are missing out on an experience which, if you let it, must surely set you wondering at the lives of the people you see along the way; lives that are incredibly tough by our soft European standards, yet they seem to thrive on what seems to us like hardship, with no shortage of smiles.

During the 19 days of our stay, we spent some 44 hours covering about 3,000km (at a rough estimate – I may be a bit out on that). True, the time wasn’t necessarily comfortably spent, but it was always interesting, P’s aged but sturdy 4x4 providing an ever-changing window onto rural Zambian life.

Of course, it was only a window – quite literally. We drove with the doors locked and avoided stopping other than for fuel and calls of nature, the former only in the largest towns and the latter only when sure of uninterrupted solitude. Car-jackings may not be commonplace, but they do happen. Of the relatively few other Europeans P. and R. know, one couple suffered a car-jacking – in the middle of the day and in the very centre of Lusaka – just a couple of years ago. Perhaps rural areas are safer - but perhaps not. We didn’t plan on putting that theory to the test.

So even though everyone speaks English (that being the national language and hence that used in schools) we didn’t have any interactions other than the most basic, at shops and fuel stations. All we could do was watch the scenes that flashed by, and wonder about the lives of the people we saw. And there was plenty to wonder about; some of my guesses may be wildly misplaced; others may be roughly on the right track. I’ll find out more, if I can, when I get the chance, but for the moment my guesses and wonderings will have to fill in the gaps between the simple facts of what could be seen, for a just a few seconds, in a narrow strip within a few hundred yards of the road.

Incidentally, in what follows, you might sense a rather unfortunate parallel between these behind-glass images of people’s daily lives and the viewing of game from the security of a safari vehicle; a parallel of which I was uncomfortably aware. In fact in many ways we were closer to the animals than we were to the people in the villages. The animals we could study as long as we liked (or until the guide got bored) - often so close that binoculars were totally redundant, unless you want to count the hairs on a lion’s head or the ticks on a buffalo’s back. But the people and their dwellings flashed by in next to no time. We were far more isolated from them in every way; I couldn’t escape the disquieting notion that I was thinking about these people in the detached way a social anthropologist might – the same way a behavioural zoologist would observe the animals. But even if we had had the opportunity to engage with them, the outer surface of their lives is so different from ours it’d probably be hard to find common ground there for the kind of conversation which might lead deeper into their collective psyche.

And I suspect it would be the junk in our own lifestyle that would get in the way of reaching the truth of theirs.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are so many images in my mind, all jumbled together, it’s difficult to know where to start. And not only images in my mind; I have over two hundred photos snapped hastily from the car as we sped past. It’s next to impossible to frame a subject properly when you don’t know what’s going to appear in front of the lens pointing out of a rear passenger window until it is almost past, and the camera itself is bouncing along at somewhere between 60 and 120 kph. Using a high shutter speed and image stabilisation, the camera does a fair job of extracting a stable image (albeit often a very wonky one), but the reflexes (and eyesight) of the photographer are definitely the weak link in the chain.

All the same, these snaps are as good a starting point as any, so I invite you to share with me over the comings days and weeks, as blogging time permits, the scenes we saw and the paths down which my imagination wandered as I tried to piece together aspects of the way of life glimpsed on our journeys.

But enough for one post; here for now is a taste of what we saw:

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