Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Zambian Traveller's Tales - Part 1 

We were up early and left at 6 a.m. - before sunrise, even though in all probability we’d get to Chipata, our overnight stop on the way to South Luangwa National Park, by early afternoon. When you take a long road trip in Zambia it’s a good idea to include a sizeable contingency in your schedule to ensure you reach your destination by nightfall - which is about 6pm, give or take a bit, all year round. Who knows what you might encounter on the way to delay you, and driving at night is definately not for the faint-hearted - for reasons which will become clear in a future post.

This one wasn’t blocking the road,

but this was one (seen on another trip) very nearly was. Such sights are common, we were told – a premise born out by our experience of seeing on average about one overturned lorry for every six hours on the road. Thankfully we could get around this one, but with a rock wall on one side and a steep drop on the other, we might not have been so lucky. If the only road is blocked, there's often no alternative but to wait until it is cleared. When a landslide blocked this same stretch of road in February - the only road linking Lusaka with Zimbabwe and thence South Africa - that meant a wait of 6 days. Even now, five months on, the surface still hasn’t been repaired – the gap is just filled with crushed rock, which even a 4 x 4 has to negotiate at little more than a walking pace.

And if you thought your troubles were over once the lorry was out of the way, think again. Once it has been righted, if driveable, chances are it’ll carry on its way with no further attention. Many a time we saw a lorry whose rear end was apparently trying to pull out and overtake the front, the back axle being twisted out of line with the body. Makes you wonder about the mechanical integrity of the juggernaut on the other side of the road thundering towards you…

Thankfully though we had less immediately disturbing things to take our attention.

It seems that wherever you travel, at whatever time of day, you will always see children walking to or from school. Rural schools often operate a three shift system - early morning, starting at 7.30, late morning, and afternoon – it’s the only way with a limited teaching resource of providing at least a basic education for everyone. You might be seemingly in the middle of nowhere, miles since the last town or village and miles from the next;

it might be before sunrise, or in the blazing heat of the day, or, I imagine, in the middle of a tropical downpour (logic says that must be so, although we encountered none at this time of year, it being the dry season) or when darkness is only an hour away; yet you’ll always encounter schoolchildren on the road, with a steady, purposeful stride designed to eat up the miles with apparent ease. It looks surprising to our eyes, used to seeing six-year-olds taken by car half a mile to school, to find youngsters of that age on their own, miles from anywhere, walking down roads along which the aforementioned juggernauts occasionally thunder. And even though this is rural Africa, and all but the trunk roads are just dirt so that every passing vehicle leaves a choking plume of dust in its wake; even though these children may live in a single-roomed mud-brick grass-thatched dwelling (or less traditionally, a tin-roofed one),

with no running water and no electricity; in spite of all this they are immaculately turned in full school uniform, with an obvious pride in themselves that would put many of their UK counterparts to shame.

The sight is almost surreal; it's the middle of the bush, the villages look little different to how they have looked for centuries - with the notable exception of bicycles and ubiquitous cellphone "Top up Here" signs - yet these children would blend in perfectly on the high street of any English town or village.

It’s a sight to make you think. I’m guessing that some of these children might walk for 2 hours or more to get to school – where they’ll spend 3 hours and then make the journey home again. 20 hours walking for 15 hours schooling a week. It seems tough enough at this time of year, when conditions are like a pleasant English summers day, but what is like when the temperature reaches 40 deg C or rain is falling in sheets? And how do their parents pay for the uniforms? Many of them will be subsistence farmers, most likely below the internationally agreed poverty level; yet they manage to scrape together enough to buy a uniform whose cost I can imagine some British parents complaining about.

I said it makes you think. To be honest, I'm not sure exactly what I think. Schooling obviously means a lot to these people; probably they seek "betterment", whatever that is; parents hope it will provide a path out of the poverty trap for their children, but I wonder what options are really available to them, educated or not? Hawking oranges in the traffic in Lusaka? It's tempting to take a romanticised view that, with basic needs of housing - built entirely by hand from local materials of mud-brick, wood and grass - and food, home-grown or traded, met, perhaps this simple life, in spite of its hardships, has something to be said for it. But the reality of course is nowhere near as idyllic as that. Lack of clean water (unless some overseas charity has provided a borehole well);

limited medical facilities - perhaps a ride of several hours in a bumpy ox-cart to reach the nearest doctor;

parasitic infections; no, I wouldn't pretend it's a life to aspire to, however much 'downsizing' might appeal.

I don't know what their education will bring these children in the years ahead, but it clearly brings them pride in themselves in the present, and I'm guessing it gives them hope for the future. And even putting the content of the education itself on one side, those are two assets well worth having, assets in which these children walking several hours a day on dusty roadsides have greater riches than some of their better off Western counterparts.

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