Notes From the Edge: Africa 6

I am at the point in the Africa Notes where we take the long drive across the country to the nature reserve. Twelve hours on an old bus might have been test of will but for me the front windscreen was a cinema and through the side windows were manipulated the other senses. The smells of the roasted mice that they shoved through the windows each time we slowed down the chattering monkeys in the trees and the shrill cry of playing children. On the old bus, just like in our tents at night, we felt the hard, unrelenting African earth through our very bones.  

When we travel, when we really travel, we’re at the mercy of someone else every step of the way and it can be frustrating at times waiting for trains or border control or bus drivers. It’s part of the adventure, if we’ve got our mindset right, and these waiting times are often when we get to see the little bits of a place that in our rush we might miss. At the station we might catch the conversation between the conductor and the guard, or we might see the fat man stumble or the cat catch a bird. These are not moments to be idle; just to let the world think that we are. I use this time to make pages. At every opportunity where there’s a flatish surface that doesn’t move too much and a little bit of light, I’ll be making pages. It is a lovely irony that most of the action happens to the traveller when he’s not moving. We get less time when we’re back home than when we’re out and about. I’ll walk the fields and pop to the coast and catch a mountain or two, but the itinerary is always tight and there’s always demands. Give me a delayed flight in Livingstone or a traffic jam in Lusaka or a twelve-hour drive across the African bushland any day. 

I jumped in my car just now and drove to pick the kids up from school. I’d been making pages at my desk and had immersed myself deeply in the dusty roads of South Luangwa so that as I drove the safe smooth roads of my Worcestershire town I thought of how the displacement of a few thousand miles could land one in an entirely different world. As I rolled along here in England there was a cart laden with firewood, pulled by a pair of donkeys along some desolate road in the heart of Africa and flanked by a man about my age with a job to do. Whose life is the more valid? Whose dreams the more important? 

Africa6 – The Long Road to Kakumbi

Three days ago we were on a luxury air-conditioned coach gliding over flawless tarmac. The 200km drive from school to the airport took a little over two hours. Today we were to take the Great East Road out of Lusaka and towards the border with Malawi before heading north to Kakumbi, deep in the South Luangwa national park. The journey is 340km and was to take every single drop of the twelve hours of daylight. In fact, we left Casa Munji in the pre-dawn chill and were on the outskirts of the city before the sun made its swift ascent into the day and caught us up. 

It was a day that started on the same old bus that had brought us from the airport – a thirty-seater with our backpacks piled at the rear and ourselves slung across the remaining seats to catch missed sleep. 

I did not want to sleep. Not for a minute. The best way to know a place, just like a new acquaintance, is in the pre-dawn, as it wakes. With the sleep still in its eyes and preoccupied with the thoughts of the day a city is vulnerable and offers a true picture of its character. People were everywhere and I wondered where on earth they might have been going. There was no real sense of purpose and certainly no urgency like you might see in a London rush hour, but people were milling about, staring at the white folk on the bus, smiling amiably and chatting. Another day. 

Always people; the whole route of the long drive: people. This single carriageway was the main artery cutting through the country from the capital to the east and linking villages along the way. It was the M1 of Zambia but it was also a major pedestrian route, cycle path and marketplace. Again I was struck by a fundamental difference between how I saw roads and how there were seen here. At home we keep away from the roads where we can – indeed, it’s against to law to walk along the motorway – but here the road was the lifeblood of many, many communities. There were few, if any, safety features on the road other than a single and endless line down the centre: no illuminated cats-eyes or reflective signs; no rumble strips or speed cameras. In fact the only measure in place to control the speed of traffic on this road were the speed-humps that we encountered every few miles. Quite literally a strip of concrete, sometimes six inches high, had been set across the road with no warning of its arrival, nor any real consistency in its placement. Drivers had to be alert and it was on more than one occasion that we were either ground to a virtual stop to surmount a more obvious one, or peeling ourselves from the ceiling after one had not been spotted.  

I am tempted to think, though, that rather than being a safety measure, these speed humps were actually a crude business tactic. Each time we slowed for one of these things, figures would appear from the trees at the side of the road and thrust bananas through the windows of the bus or flustered chickens or, quite often, what I took to be decorative twig arrangements but were actually roasted field mice skewered on sticks. Small villages clustered round these points and in the shade languished the men while the women and children did the work. 

The houses all along the route were rudimentary single-room huts, circular and made of slender branches, roofed with elephant grass. It is the cliched image of Africa that I had not expected to see, but this is how people live. They emerge from beneath the thatch in their Barcelonaor Liverpool shirts and hawk goods to the passing traffic as they have done for centuries. In the centre of each village might be some source of electricity to charge their mobile phones. In one village we visited the local witch doctor had set up solar panels and could watch the football on a black and white Panasonic at the same time as charging his Nokia. The clay figure of a local god watched over his yard and he knew that his gadgetry was safe. 

Always people, people walking this way and walking that way along the side of the road. Even when it seemed that we had driven for hours without seeing any signs of a village or a town, people would be walking along the road. Children in school uniforms, women in bright colours and men on bikes. How far were they going? I wondered. How far had they already been? It was bumpy on the bus but we were getting somewhere at what must have seemed like an incredible pace to these people that we passed. What was it like to be them, to be there? I wondered if they wondered what it was like to be me; to be on this bus heading away and away from them. 

Every soul that I saw I thought of the thoughts that might have been passing through that mind. I liked to think that it was a calm place; a mind that wondered about today’s problems and not trying to reshape the world to fit a tomorrow that might never come. I wondered if they walked this road at night and if they did, what dangers lurked out of view of the road. When we rose and a view opened up it was harsh brush for as far as the eye could see with barren orange hills rising from time to time in the distance. On one bend a troop of baboons sauntered menacingly along the shoulder of the road like bored teenagers looking for trouble. How would a single man fare if he faced this lot one dusky night on the road? Or a small child? Were baboons wont to attack? I shivered in the heat of the bus at the thought and wondered what I would do in that situation. Even with a phone signal, who would come? How long would they take? 

And bikes. Push bikes that laboured along these stretches of road outnumbered by far the motorised vehicles that we had seen. They were classic old sit-up-and-beg models with a single speed and a wire rack at front and back. The rider was often obscured by the things that he carried and reduced to mere engine. I could never work out whether he was loaded on his way to market or on his way home but I saw whole pigs slung across the back, piles of bricks and bags of charcoal, ten gallon water butts and, on one occasion, a telegraph pole. It was testament to the strength of spirit of these people that they simply got on and did what they had to do. I admired it as I stretched out on my sea and eyed the baboons warily. 

Near the border with Mozambique we crossed the Luangwa river and thus out of Lusaka province and into Eastern province. In an instant the condition of the roads improved and the hold ups were less frequent. Still the people walked and rode and from time to time we passed small clusters of circular huts surrounded by great patches of black earth: the remnants of charcoal making. Next to these the ntembe; a market stall surrounded by sacks of charcoal, intentionally long and thin for carrying on bikes or heads. In the shade a single child flicking at flies.   

At Chipata, a few miles from the Malawian border, we stopped for meat. We were about to leave the main road, the driver told us, and this was the last place we would be able to buy food. A Spar supermarket stood at the edge of a strip-mall looking for all the world like it had been plucked from some remote Welsh village, except that here the shelves were mostly empty and within minutes our bus was surrounded by Chipatans. A boy of about fifteen sauntered over. He had a tray balanced on his head in which were small parcels of peanuts and he wore the sombre look that I was getting used to of someone who was about to ask for something. He told me that he was hungry, then swept his arm in a semi-circle: “we all are” he said and I noticed a dozen other boys in his wake. We gave them the bread that we had left and they gobbled it swiftly. I marvelled that he could walk all day with hunger grumbling in his gut and a tray of food on his head. We had been briefed not to give to beggars. We were told that it encourages them and reinforces the white-man supremacy idea. I thought that kids who were desperately hungry would not care less if it was a white man, a dairy cow or a man from mars who offered them food. They begged yesterday and would beg for every day to come while they were still hungry. I found the decree insulting and patronising – as though my refusing them food might cleanse the mentality of these boys.

An albino man that I took to be in his sixties but might just have easily been in his mid-twenties, his skin fairer than any of ours on the bus, muscled the boys out of the way and stood at the open doorway of the bus with his hands out. I had heard of the beggars in India and how mutilations and deformities were rewarded with higher begging stakes. I wondered if it was the same here – the man had a definite swagger in his approach and the boys parted willingly. He wasn’t deformed but he was odd. The one tooth that remained jutted horizontally between cracked lips and whatever was wrong with his skin had begun to eat away and his eyelids and ears. I could see why the others boys had parted and could not push from my mind the memory of trying to aim my wads of bread at the smaller ducks and not the bullying swan. In this case it was the small packets of Haribos that we had left, and this man was no swan. He wanted cash, he said, not bread. I gave him an apple and as we drove away wondered how he would eat it. 

We were on a dust road heading deep into the nature reserve. A sign read Kakumbi 60km and we knew that we were in for another couple of hours of sliding and rocking and slowing and stopping. The rudimentary Great Eastern Road that we had just left now seemed like a superhighway in comparison. But this was Africa and so far it had been so much more African than I had really expected it to be. Thick lines of trees now bordered the road and there were fewer and fewer people along its flanks. Were were heading into the North Luangwa National Park, an area that, since Zambia had realised that there was more to be gained in preserving the animals than shooting them, had become famous for its big game safaris and a tad more dangerous for the locals, most of whom had moved up to Chipata. 

With each rise of the road we caught glimpses of the land that was rolled out beneath us. It was so beautiful as to be unearthly; like a scene from a dream. Full of colours and textures that I had never seen before. The sun was on its descent and threw a softer light which picked out the wrinkles of the land and made long shadows of the trees and bushes. Vultures circled in the air while marauding monkeys chattered in the trees and played chicken with the bus. Croc Valley, our camp on the edge of the Luangwa river, would not be reached before nightfall and that would mean negotiating tents in the dark, but I don’t think that I was alone in enjoying the day bleed out of the sky.  

The road had become sand and I wondered how much further we would be able to go as the engine laboured after a hard day and the light dwindled. From the bushes to one side a commotion and the god-like bulk of a bull elephant. It did not care that we were there and its flank brushed the side of the bush as it pushed past. A zebra flicked its ears a little further on and impala drank from the stream. 

It was a day that had begun in the morning dark of a crammed city and was ending a million or so miles away. A million or so miles from anywhere. In my tent that night I wondered if the spaces we had left would be enough for when the elephants passed through to get to the water. I wondered if the bank that dropped down to the river was high and steep enough to keep the crocodiles down there. I wondered if the dozen or so hippos that lay farting and belching on the sandbanks would remain there for the night.  

I was too scared to dream that night, but I did sleep.  

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