Sunday, December 5, 2010

How it looks

          The earth is sandy and pink or orange in color, depending on the light. Grass grows beside roads, on the boulevards and centers of roundabouts, and in the walled yards of wealthier people. But under trees and in the shade of shrubbery, the soil is bare. The sky, during the dry season when we arrived, was a cloudless pale blue. Now, most days, clouds pass over, sometimes white, puffy ones or mackerel clouds; other times solid gray banks which usually bring rain. Towering walls of cumulus clouds are especially beautiful when the setting sun shines on them.

          It can be hard to find a place to see the clouds or much of the sky, though. Trees and bushes grow everywhere. I don’t know the names of most, but recognize the flame trees from their brilliant flowers and the mangoes laden with still green fruit. The grounds of Justo Mwale Theological University College, where our house is, are a park-like campus, with much grass and many trees and bushes.

          Lusaka is a city so there are many streets and roads. The main ones, like Great East Road, Church Road and Cairo Road, are four or six lane thoroughfares, sometimes with boulevards or dividers down the center. In some places, access or “slip” roads run along one side or another of the main road. Deep drainage ditches run beside nearly all streets (a clue to the volume of rain in the coming rainy season). Except in the very center of town or in front of shopping malls, dirt and gravel shoulders serve as sidewalks. Stoplights are rare; roundabouts are the rule for major intersections. Often they will have a statue or monument at the center, surrounded by well tended lawns and flower beds. There, are few street-name or directional signs but numerous billboards, some of them massive structures supported on steel posts 2 or 3 feet in diameter. Cell phone service providers, banks, car dealers and building supply companies  dominate the ad space.

          Traffic is dense, and crowds of pedestrians move up and down on the shoulders and sidewalks, dodging vehicles to cross the road. At intersections, women sit on the ground selling bananas, tomatoes, onions, rape and other fruits and vegetables. Shoe and bicycle repair men ply their trade at roadside benches and tables, and sewer cleaners sit at the ready beside their signature teepees of roto-rooter rods topped with rubber gloves.  Vendors stroll through traffic jams, hawking newspapers, talk-time, hats, toys and other wares to passengers in buses and private vehicles. Women in yellow lab coats, stoop with their stubby brooms, sweeping trash from the medians and boulevards.

          Side streets are generally less well maintained than the thoroughfares. Few are paved, and, if they are, the pavement often is crumbling along the edges. There are stretches where large trees line the street, providing welcome shade for pedestrians – everywhere people are walking. But the main feature of the landscape are the walls that line both sides of the road, except in the very poor compounds (townships). In the wealthy and middle class neighborhoods, people live behind 8-10 foot walls, generally of concrete block topped with glass shards or razor wire or electrified wire. Often they’re painted – white or green or pink – or decorated with patterns or stonework. Sometimes a line of shrubs runs in front. But, basically – aside from your fellow pedestrians – there’s not much to see as you walk down a street, just the road ahead, the sky above, trees and shrubs, the roofs of houses . . . and the walls. Each plot (lot) does have a gate, often staffed by a uniformed security guard, so if the gate is open, you can get a glimpse of what’s behind the walls. But the only place I found a good view of the neighborhood is from atop the pedestrian flyover that crosses the Great East Road by the University of Zambia campus. From there you can overlook some of the very nice houses, yards, gardens – even some swimming pools – that the walls conceal. You can also see the taller buildings in (down) town.

          Many Lusaka drivers like to go very fast. This usually isn’t possible on the crowded main streets, but drivers make up for lost time on the side streets. Residential streets and some others are littered with large traffic bumps and potholes, but drivers often accelerate wildly between them, braking hard just before the next bump or crater. Walking and biking along the streets can be very hazardous, more particularly for those who are used to a right- as opposed to left-side driving system. I’ve lost count of times I’ve nearly or actually stepped in front of approaching vehicles, after looking left instead of right. Lebo gets very nervous walking with me. So far, I’ve only been nudged by a slow-moving mini bus. My constant mantra is, “Look BOTH ways: Right, left and Right again!”

          Now that we’ve moved to Justo Mwale, we’re out on the edge of the city and the view isn’t so closed in. You pass a few farms and orchards and houses without surrounding walls. The dusty washboard gravel road heads downhill past the college, and, off in the distance, you can see a tree-covered line of hills. We are about 3 miles from the University of Lusaka main campus and 4 or 5 miles from Arcades Mall. The bus stop is about a mile from our house.

          The campus itself is large and well maintained. It seems to be roughly three or four blocks square, surrounded by a concrete block wall. Two security guards staff the front gate, day and night and patrol the grounds at night. Most of the buildings are fairly new, particularly the classroom block and a conference center. A new church of modern design is under construction.

          Our house, the DRC Guest House (DRC stands for Dutch Reformed Church, but Mrs. Kumwenda says it was actually paid for by U.S. Presbyterians), is maybe twenty years old, built of concrete block, with a tin roof, well-waxed concrete floors and lots of metal-framed windows that swing open and are fitted with burglar bars. There are screens on some of the windows, and loose-fitting ones on the doors, back and front. (We take the precaution of sleeping under mosquito nets, though many people say that malaria-bearing mosquitoes don't fly as high as Lusaka's 4,200 ft. elevation.)

          The exterior of the house is dark gray stucco with white trim. We have two full-size bedrooms, two smaller rooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom – all on one floor.  The inside walls are smooth concrete painted yellow halfway up, then white. The cove moldings and fibreboard ceiling are also white. The ceilings in the kitchen and small adjoining room that Lebo has taken for her bedroom slope toward the rear of the house.  In each room, high up on an outside wall are one or two small ventilation grates. Outside, to the left of the house (looking out) is a mango tree. Step out the front door onto a stone patio, and, to your right, under the living room window, you’ll see a flower bed crowed with tall, gloriously pink Impatiens. A tin-roofed stoep extends along the back, then bare dirt up to the neighbor’s wall. A wall also runs not far from the left side of the house, so we can’t see our neighbors behind or to the left. Happily, there are no walls out front or on the right so we can sit on the patio and look out on the grass and trees of the campus and the ever busy playground across the driveway.

          Speaking of the neighbors, we’ve met a few (It’s so private here, compared with the guest house, where we were constantly interacting with staff and other guests). Behind and to the right, as you look at the house, are Dustin, an American Presbyterian minister and New Testament scholar, his wife Sherry and their two boys, recently arrived here from Cairo where he taught the past 5 years.  Next door is Dr. Banda, the Academic Dean, and up the hill behind the conference center are Mennonite volunteers Jonathan and Cynthia and their two boys. Nice folks all. It’s the between-terms holiday, so students and their families and some faculty are gone. People say the campus is more lively when classes are in session.

           So that’s a sketch of where we live. I’ve not said much about the people who are, of course, the main feature of this – or any – place. That would be a whole other entry. Suffice it for now to say there are lots of them, and that, by and large, they are young. I think something like half the population of Zambia is 15 years old or younger – but don’t quote me on that (a national census is just winding up and preliminary findings are expected to be published in the next few months.). Lusaka’s a big city, so people go about their own business and don’t greet everyone they pass, as seemed to be common in rural Lesotho when we lived there. But we do meet plenty of friendly people who will start up a conversation on the bus or in a shop or along the road. The owners and staff at Zebra Guest House were very welcoming and kind to us, and a few have already come to visit us at our new lodgings.

          But let me conclude with the observation that, everywhere you look or go here, people are working: Digging deep ditches and holes in the intense heat, offloading cement sacks from trailer beds, tilling fields with mattocks,  cracking rocks into gravel with hand mallets, cutting acres of grass with weed whips and electric mowers, washing clothes by hand, scrubbing and waxing floors, erecting iron, laying block and pushing hod in wheelbarrows, tiling roofs, pulling wire, plastering, painting, setting floor tile,  repairing and washing vehicles, driving trucks, buses and taxis, selling fruit, vegetables and talk-time, caring for children, teaching . . .  and everywhere, always sweeping, sweeping, sweeping.

- Bill 

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