Nothing can really prepare you for the reality of city life in Africa. The pollution, the noise, the chickens and cattle running amongst the chaotic traffic. The hustle and bustle you feel almost makes a mockery of the slow, slow pace of getting anything done. You become very familiar with ques and line-ups (and sometimes need to keep your elbows-up holding your position from budgers and yahoos)!
I’ve never been a big city-girl, but city culture in Africa takes on a whole new dimension. The effects of poverty are seen on so many different levels. There are the very rich, and the very poor, and very few seem to fall within the ‘middle class’. We’ll walk past huge walled estates, with a Mercedes in the drive and security guards at front gate, and three feet away is a blind man in rags with his hand out for alms.
It’s the children that break my heart though. There are so many children in the streets, all with their hands out and pleading. They ask for money, they ask for food, they ask for help. They bring their blind mother or crippled uncle and beg on the street corners.
And here is where my inner conflict begins. By giving to these out-stretched hands, we only teach them to beg (and they should be able to attend school). We only add to the problem, or perhaps give a very temporary fix to a much larger problem. It does not teach them the value of getting an education and pursuing more for their future. I feel heartless every time I deny an outstretched hand or a plea for money; in their eyes, I am a rich white person...
But it becomes more complex than this...if we give to one, there will be dozens (possibly hundreds) more right behind. We have heard of travellers who have given to a begging child, and found they were followed back to their Guest House, where dozens of people waited outside their room for a hopeful donation. For every child you give a dollar, there are hundreds more. And it can become an issue of safety.
Shaun and I decided that if we want to help, we would give to community projects rather than individuals. Donating our time and supplies (soap/ school supplies/ soccor balls/ medical supplies) to schools and community programs was how we gave back, and seemed to fit best with our values.
Being a wazungu (white person) in Africa is not easy, as absurd as that sounds. For many years white people were scrambling for Africa’s resources, all the while stepping on the backs of the locals to move themselves forward. I am ashamed of the white Colonial and Imperialistic history in Africa. The Africans have every reason to hate white people, and yet they are welcoming and friendly to us overall.*
It is the desperate state of poverty and hunger that leads to the crime and theft we see in the big cities. It is very tiring to always have our guard up. It’s hard to know who to trust; is this person trying to steal my wallet or genuinely being friendly? I have worn my money-belt continuously since I’ve been in Lusaka. Our cameras are concealed in our day-bag at all times, as it’s not safe to leave any valuables in our hotel room. Yet we haven’t taken a single photo since we’ve been here; once someone sees we have a camera, it’s as good as gone.
We have met many travellers who have been robbed or pick-pocketed (some without even knowing it until later!). It’s really difficult to know who to trust. Even now, our cell phone has been missing for 2 days. We are choosing to believe that we lost it or left it someplace in the hostel, because the thought of it being stolen from our room leaves us feeling vulnerable and violated. We are working hard to keep our minds and hearts open. We want to embrace the people and experience all that Zambia has to offer. I guess we’re still learning our boundaries without losing sight of our ‘open mind and open heart’ mantra.
*Aside: We have read a number of excellent African-based novels. One exceptional (and true) story is called Blood River, written by Tim Butcher. The book chronicles this white man’s journey through the Congo in 2004 (following the same expedition route taken by H.M.Stanley). The author has a beautiful writing style, and combines history into his remarkable story. Here is his very brief summary of Africa’s history:
After Africa’s early Tribal history came the period of exploitation by outsiders, starting with centuries of slavery and moving onto the Scramble for Africa. When the white man staked the black man’s continent in a few hectic years at the end of the nineteenth century to launch the colonial era. Then came independence in the late 1950’s and 1960’s , when the winds of change swept away regimes that some white leaders had boasted would stand for ever. And it finished with the post-independence age of economic decay, war, coup and crisis; with African leaders manipulated, and occasionally murdered, by foreign powers, and dictatorships clinging to power in a continent teeming with rebels, loyalists and insurgents.
The one constant through each of these episodes was the heavy undertow of human suffering. It gnawed away at every African epoch...no matter whether it was caused by nineteenth-century colonial brutes or twenty-first-century despots. Generations of Africans have suffered the triumph of disappointment over Potential, creating the only continent on the planet where normal rules of human development and advancement simply don’t apply.