It hadn’t rained for two years when we arrived in Zambia. From the aeroplane we got a sense of the bigness; the flatness; the unending wildness of the country and on the runway as we waited for another plane a mini tornado kicked up red dust and moved it somewhere else. The dust, we were soon to discover, found its way in to every crevice and cranny and most of us are still finding traces of it half a year later. It is a red dust and unmistakably African; it turns up in the most unlikely of places: a pencil case or a pair of socks; in the folds of clothes that we haven’t worn since the summer. And with each grain of dust comes a tiny memory of the adventure that we had.
I could stand here and talk about the Africa that you might already know about; that some of you might even have even experienced, because we saw all of that. We were driven through wild bushland while impala grazed and warthogs nuzzled at the ground; we sat in nervous silence while a family of lions yawned and pawed at each other and we ate breakfast as monkeys swung in the branches above us and giraffes contorted their improbable frames to drink on the far side of the river. While we slept in our tents we were serenaded by the belching of hippos and felt the ground tremble as elephants sauntered by. I could tell about the sunsets we saw over the Zambezi or how we felt the mist of Victoria Falls on our faces while the locals sold us ironwood figures and made us their friends.
But all of that, wonderful as it was, you could buy. You could go and see it tomorrow, if you wanted to.
What I want to tell you about is the things that we hadn’t expected; the things that no money could buy and the things that changed us all a little bit. I’m talking about the people and the indomitable spirit of each individual that we met. Even in George Compound, an immense sprawl of shanty dwellings on the outskirts of Zambia’s capital city Lusaka which is home to fifty thousand people: all of whom live well below the bread line. At one point we paused to watch a game of football. It was about fifty-a-side, though no one seemed to worry about that, just as not a single one of them was wearing shoes. They played with a ball made of tightly packed plastic bags that would unravel from time, pausing the game.
On the other side of the country after a day’s bus ride along unmaintained roads we walked through a village that consisted of houses made from the earth on which they stood and were roofed with the grasses that grew nearby. There was no running water or mains electricity here but the whole place was positively opulent compared to George Compound. Within minutes we were joined by children who wanted simply to talk to us; to hold our hands; to show us their dances. One of them pushed a toy train made from empty water bottles while another moulded bricks from a muddy puddle and baked them in the sun. He was seventeen and worked for five hours each afternoon so that he could pay his school fees.
A little way down the road was Moyo Lunga community school: a first school that welcomed the local children as the sun rose each day. It was cold in the mornings and the children turned up in scarves and jackets that were gradually shed as the day warmed up. They were learning about the natural environment; learning to spell, to read, to line up and to be responsible citizens. They sang us songs and welcomed us like old friends. When an aeroplane flew high above the yard surrounding the little school house they ran and pointed deliriously shouting “Faluy”, “Faluy”. Not one of them had ever been closer than this to an aeroplane, nor ever would.
Those that had brought some ate lunch from plastic boxes with faded Disney characters and shared the contents with those that hadn’t any. From time to time a parent would drop by with a gift of bread for the children or would wait for the recess so that they could sweep the floor or refill the water bucket that stood in the corner of the room; it was their contribution to the upkeep of the school and the only contribution that they could make. Many of the children didn’t have parents; they were orphans supported by the charity that we stayed with.
The children wrote studiously with nubs of pencils; they coloured and recoloured the pictures in books sent from overseas and when it was time for a test they shared test papers until there was enough money to take a trip into town to photocopy more. The teacher himself was an orphan – his parents victims of the AIDS epidemic of the eighties and nineties. Peter, his name was: a success story after a ravaged childhood.
In the school yard stood the shell of a building that I took to be the old school room but was in fact in the process of being built in the hope that these children would have somewhere to graduate to come the next school year. From time to time a volunteer would come and scrape more soil into the brick moulds or bring scraps of wood to be turned into desks and chairs. There were no windows and no roof yet: these were things that could not be pulled out of the ground and would need outside help. And money.
I asked how much it was going to cost to finish off the new building and realised that the phone I was carrying in my pocket had cost more.