Western Road Trip 3

Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
Trip End Nov 17, 2005

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Flag of Zambia  , Western,
Thursday, July 28, 2005

The guy in the village probably thought I was crazy, running up the sandy path from the road trying to pull the camera out of my shoulder bag. But mad or not, I was determined to get this shot after missing so many great images along the road through rural Zambia.

Those images are still in my head if not in my camera, like a few dozen words out of a thousand. On the highway with a tight schedule it's been difficult to take good pictures, and frustrating to see photo ops blur by. We're on a job, though, not a tourist expedition, and I feel limited in asking Bwalya to stop the truck more than once in a while.

But this road to Lukulu is long, we're coming back the same way, and since it's our only destination for the day we have all the time in the world. I'd seen the image on our way in and resolved to find it on the way back. The road from Kaoma to Lukulu is seasonal, impassable in the rains, and the 200km journey takes over six hours each way.

Coming back the same day I spot the tiny village I've been waiting for and without explanation tell Bwalya to stop. By the time I reach the man sitting in the shade with his wife he's on his feet looking dumbfounded. Fortunately I've found the right man; the big, beautifully crafted marimba, or African xylophone, I'd seen from the road is his.

By charades I explain that I want to take a picture of him playing the instrument. Moments later he's a 1000 kwacha richer, and I have one of the best and most intimate pictures I've taken in 3 months in Zambia.

Flushed from the success I get Bwalya to stop again as we pass two men along the roadside dressed in intimidating native costumes. The duo are nightmarish figures, carrying whips and wearing tight brown and beige striped garments, ragged grassy skirts and elaborate headdresses, their faces hidden by the same striped fabric.

We've just passed a Zambia National Service farm, essentially a labour camp, and Bwalya explains that these men are recruiters for the camp, trawling the nearby villages for boys old enough to be drawn into service. While they stand mute and threatening in the villages, plain-clothed servicemen cajole parents into submitting their young boys to the ZNS. I'm thankful that my encounter with these two only costs me a few cigarettes.

The sun has set when we reach Kaoma, the little town we'd stayed in the night before, where we take up the same rooms in a clean and modest guesthouse and wait for bathing water. There's a rolling blackout in town and the power is off at the guesthouse, though down the street the shops, bars and restaurants on the main drag are lit and busy.

In the guesthouse parking lot a ragged man walks up to the truck, gesturing as if to himself, talking in dialect and rough English, and waving money at me. I'm not sure what he wants but walk away from the truck toward the guesthouse reception area trying to avoid a confrontation. When I see him leaving I walk back to the vehicle, where he's left 2500 kwacha (about 50 cents) on the dashboard.

Bewildered and suspicious I chase after him waving the money. "Take it back," I call after him. "You need this more than I do." But to no response. When I threaten to leave the money on the street he waves me off and disappears into the distance.

I leave the money in the dust and walk away, baffled by the encounter until a local women explains that the guy is nuts and likes to give his money away, mostly to muzungus. He was trying to give me a gift. It's the kind of strange gesture you only find once, though, and surely I can be forgiven my guardedness.

After a hot bath and decent meal we hit the main street of Kaoma for a few drinks, celebrating our last night on the road. With just one more billboard to secure we'll be heading home tomorrow, and after the long road to Lukulu and back it's high time for a beer.

The bar we settle into is crowded and rowdy, and within moments I'm being hounded, literally mobbed by men and women wanting my attention, money, cigarettes, beer. After so many ragged bars over the long journeys through rural Zambia I'm relatively unfazed by the tumult, but this is getting ridiculous.

Everyone in the bar has an eye on me, and before long the drunken man hovering near us is violently thrown out by the barman. A wretched and wasted young women nearby leers at me crudely, swaying unsteadily to the blaring music.

When I dash to the toilet I find some respite in a pleasant young couple, the husband carrying their beautiful baby girl. We talk idly for a while before the wife asks me to buy her a drink. "Me, I'm drinking Castle," says her husband, sloshing his almost empty beer bottle. I feel appalled and make a hasty exit back to bar. Since when did I become the Great Provider?

Back at the table Brian seems to be pimping me out, talking with the wretch who's eyeing me once again. Another sets her generous frame beside me on the arm of the couch. I call Brian over and remind him that I'm "married". The girl on the arm rest wants me to tell her about Canada (who told her I'm Canadian?!) and asks where my wife is.

A burly young man squats down beside the couch and tells me how popular I am here. "These girls love you," he croons like a pimp. "My wife loves me," I say to him, and he laughs, holding out a meaty hand for me to shake. Beside me Bwalya has mollified a persistent and obnoxious drunk by giving him some cash.

A moment ago I was sitting here contentedly, reflecting on the vagaries of my life on tour. Looking around at the wretched bar, the grimy walls and nefarious clientele I thought about how far I've come in the past few years, how in those years I couldn't have imagined that I'd be sitting here now in a crude bar in rural Zambia.

But that moment of reflection is over and I'm sickened by these people's wantonness. I've seen it before but not so concentrated and unreserved. While I don't feel threatened--I've been in tighter spots--I feel exasperated by the attention. I'm reminded of that quirky song by the Zit Remedy, from the Degrassi Junior High TV show. "Everybody wants something/they'll never give up/Everybody wants something/
they'll take your money."

When we finally leave the bar--I have to practically drag Brian away from the wretch--people chase after us as if Saigon has fallen, and while Bwalya revs the engine I jump on board and slam my palm on the truck as if to make it gallop away. In the midst of all this madness I don't yet feel the biggest and most bitter screw tightening.
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