Notes From the Edge: Africa 3

The sodium arc sparks up at around 9.40 these nights. It glows baby pink for a while before the pumpkin orange kicks in. We’re only a couple of weeks from midsummer and I don’t want to wish the season away, but it’s on the turn. It won’t be long before the plastic flaps of the circle are drawn in and tightened up. It gets more difficult to push out of the bubble when it’s colder, when the weather pushes back.  

But it’s never a clear line that divides the seasons here. There’s a lot of grey between the slim cracks of blue. In Metz someone at the bar would pass comment that tomorrow was spring and hey presto! Next day the sun was out and the daffodils pushing. Or someone else would mention that the next day was the start of winter and on cue, first thing next morning, there’d be snow in the air. I loved France for that. The French shrugged it away because they didn’t know any difference. In Africa it was even more extreme, except that no-one seemed even to notice. We noticed as we shivered at night beneath the canvas. The dark fell swiftly and once that big ball began to turn orange it was a scamper to get to where you were going: it was a heavy cloak that descended and with the light went the heat. The kids at the village school turned up before the 7.30 sunrise dressed in second-hand parkas and scarves; layers that were shed as the day wore on and the temperature nudged thirty.

But we’re not quite in Mwandi yet, in fact I don’t think we’ve left the airport…  

Africa Notes 3 – Johannesburg – Lusaka 

It would be quite easy to think of Africans as lazy.

I did. It’s one of those stereotypes that people on my island tend to hold and when you’re born into that sort of attitude it sticks and becomes fact. There are so many examples of it. I could talk about my grandparents’ and parents’ attitudes to homosexuality; to gender fluidity; to immigration and even the role of women. Ideas are set and fixed and handed down from generation to generation and rarely questioned. This is a problem generally because when stereotypes are not held up for scrutiny – when they are regarded as fact, they become rooted and as substantial as the concrete we stand on. 

I suppose that stereotypes are born of nervous insecurity and the unwillingness to step outside of what’s accepted and see things from a different angle. It is easy to see why people see Africans as lazy – but that is when they are being judged by standards of a different world. It is like comparing apples with pears or the present day to Victorian times.  

It is very different here. There are lots of people and it’s the first time that I have been in a country where the white man is in the minority. I was the outsider and in our circles that’s quite a rare thing. I must expand on what I mean when I say that there are lots of people. It is not as simple as I have made it sound; I mean, it’s an airport; it’s going to be busy and it was in that sense: very busy. But it was busy with staff, too. Often there were more staff than customers and for the most part there was not nearly enough work for them all to do. On the apron were hundreds of men in hi-vis jackets, just hanging around and seemingly waiting to be told what to do or quite happy to be doing nothing. It made a lot of the people that I would pass on the streets of Africa look lazy, and bored.  

But what I would later find out is that I was making the mistake of judging this place by the standards that I was used to. I was in O.Tambo airport in Johannesburg and had been in the country for less that hour: already I had made up my mind about its people. What I was to later find out was that Africa cannot be compared to the western world, just in the same way that French and Mandarin are not simply other ways to speak English. Labour here is so cheap that ten men can be employed for what it would cost a single employee in the UK. There is no welfare state that can be compared to back home and employment is rudimentary and very basic. Two weeks into the trip, in Livingstone centre, I would walk into a phone shop to buy credit and a door would be held open for me as I entered. Another staff member would be at the door greeting me and five smiling faces peered from behind the counter. There were no customers apart from me. As I picked out the nearest cashier and made towards it I was politely ushered towards a queuing system where yet another smiling face pushed a button and handed me a ticket. I took the ticket and stood in line (there were no other customers) and waited awkwardly for my number to come up while all eight members of staff watched the crazy white man and smiled. My Vodaphone shop in the UK has one member of staff on duty, maybe two on a Saturday and I can sail through Asda, do my weekly shop and never speak to or interact with another soul. We might think we’re clever in doing it our way but I think that by pointing everything towards saving money and saving time, we’re missing out. I realised that we were the fools.

The flight crew on the two hour hop from Johannesburg to Zambia’s capital Lusaka was manned by an all-female crew. It was another stereotype broken in what I thought was a patriarchal system. I would come to know that that it was the women in these countries the ruled the roost and the men who were put in their place. I would come to fall in love with every one of the women that I met here.

If Johannesburg’s O.Tambo had been an eye-opener, Lusaka was on a different level. The international airport has the air of a 1970s school gymnasium that has been repurposed for the role. Stud-wall partitions separate booths into separate shops and all of them are hawking either cloth or phone credit. The arrivals gate is a desk with a laptop and a set of French doors that are meant to be automatic but are constantly juddered open and shut by a guard in military uniform, rifle slung over his shoulder. As he puts his weight to open the door the rifle invariably slips and I wonder vaguely whether the safety is on like it would have to be at home – and then I realise that I’m doing it again…. 

I could make it through those barriers, I think to myself. I could make it through security and into the country without anyone being able to stop me. The security is lax, the walls are paper-thin and there’s no passport check. If I wanted to … and then I realised that there had probably never been the issue of people trying to force their way into this country. It made me a little sad, this thought, and I wondered what we were in for in a country that didn’t lock its doors. 

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