Media sources tell us what they think is happening, and we call it news. The happiest happenings, though, are often things that aren’t so newsworthy.
The Two-Wheeled Wanderer is wandering in small circles these days. I’m still stuck in Zambia, but “stuck” in the best possible way. It’s times like these when some quality wandering can happen simply by getting around town.
There’s an ever-so-slight rise to a plateau above the Livingstone district. Up here, I rented an apartment with a view in all directions. Nearby, there’s the normally bustling Harry Nkumbula International Airport, now silenced, all but abandoned, like a ghost town of glass and steel, more baboons strolling around than people. In the distance, plumes of white mist from Victoria Falls waft steadily skyward. Beyond that, it’s just a green and brown blur of savanna extending endlessly into wide-open space. Sometimes we yearn for a patch of distant sky. The eyes need to meet the farthest horizon, which helps us to envision what lies ahead.
Every country bordering Zambia has suspended tourist visas, indefinitely. Truckers loaded with critical cargo are getting through, but only after a two-week quarantine.
There is one exception: The border to Tanzania, which is now open one-way for business. I’m not going anytime soon. With eloquence, email messages from the U.S. Consulate Office in Dar-es-Salaam practically plead with me to stay out.
Trouble is, the Tanzanian government stopped reporting COVID-19 cases clear back in April. The president denies the disease while asking 60 million citizens to place their trust in God. Bodies are rumored to be boxed and buried under the cover of darkness.
Even if I were to ignore the warnings, and make a break for Tanzania, I’d still have to get across and into Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, or Burundi. Until further notice, none are issuing visitor visas.
Living It Up in Livingstone
Early last month, there was the buzzcut.
First off, let me say I love visiting these African barber shacks. They’re everywhere, and they really are just shacks, maybe three cubic yards, wood and corrugated sheet metal slapped together, painted inside and out according to the barber’s taste.
A beard trim is 5 kwacha (25 cents) and a haircut is 10 kwacha (50 cents). I go on separate days just to get more shack time. More Bro culture. I always toss a good tip, too. They never expect a tip. That’s one way to make friends.
One day, I stopped in for a beard trim. That went well. A couple of days later, with time to kill, I roll in again for the full haircut.
Holding my thumb and index finger a half inch apart, I hit up the smiling stylist, Jackdizo, who sports a pick comb pushed into his Afro. “Take only this much, just a trim, just clean me up a little.”
“Whoa-kay!,” he sings back, Christian music blaring out his beat-up ghetto blaster. He’s happy.
These fellas all speak at least one of around 25 languages (with 70 dialects) from upwards of 30 ethnic tribes spread throughout Zambia. Universal education in English unites them, but the English isn’t always perfect, at least by my spoiled standards. On top of that, these men are accustomed to short hair. Except for the dudes in dreadlocks, no man has more than maybe a quarter inch on his dome.
So I climb onto the barber chair — a folding metal seat, really — and he whips out the clippers. After attaching a plastic depth gauge, he flips the switch and starts working the back and the sides. Normal.
My phone dings at me. I pull it out from under the towel pinned around my neck. There’s a message I’ve been anticipating. I start reading and become totally engrossed. Deep in concentration.
That’s when I feel the clippers cruising over the top of my cranium. Too late.
Jackdizo got a 20% tip, anyway. He’s smiling every time I cruise by. I figure at a total cost of 60 cents, this haircut will last me at least four months. Now that’s a durable do.
Wandering in Circles
With tourism decimated, there are next to nil Caucasians in town, yet I feel universally welcomed by the Natives. I’m coming up on three months in Zambia and every one of my interactions, without exception, has been pleasant. Magic, even.
The few whites I see out and about are actual residents, many of those are either old-school farmers in pickup trucks or American missionaries affiliated with one Christian denomination or another. I’m possibly the lone religious renegade in these parts.
Bopping down sidewalks, I don’t get hassled by street hustlers any more. No giggling kids, either. They all know I’m not putting out. We’re all still friends, though. I say my name is Ted and they all just start calling me Teddy right away. A few even said I’m “Zambian at heart,” which feels like the biggest compliment a foreigner could hear. Thank the buzzcut, perhaps.
Every other day, I pick up a big bottle of beer, 750 milliliters, to enjoy on the street in front of my place. I return the empty to the Indian man at his convenience store where I receive a 3 kwacha credit and then get a new full bottle for 15 kwacha. That’s about 85 cents.
My bachelor pad runs me $7/night and that includes a meal. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, my choice, always delicious. I tip 20 kwacha every time the staff serves a plate. They think that’s odd. I explain how tipping is my culture and I do it without belittling anyone with the fact that 20 kwacha is just a bit more than $1, and $1 doesn’t even buy a donut in America anymore.
They also call me “Boss.” It doesn’t go to my head. Everyone seems to call everyone Boss.
The staff does my laundry once a week. They change my sheets. Tidy my room. The room, by the way, is filled with exquisite hardwood furniture. The timber growing around Livingstone is as hard as stone. Heavy chairs, sturdy tables. Big durable bed frame, too. Plus, hot water. Refrigerator. Coffee machine. On the walls, the works of local painters.
Down the road and around the bend, there’s everything I’d ever need to buy, at blowout prices. My Zambian phone plan, with 1.5 gigabytes of data, runs me $7 a month.
Nowadays, my bicycle and panniers go for grocery runs. I can make four quick shack-stops and come pedaling home loaded with fresh tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes, cucumbers, bananas, oranges, a bag of rice, bread rolls, a liter of milk, 10 eggs, a box of matches and even bar of soap and it all adds up to not even $6. The proprietors are proud to do some business. Every day is a farmer’s market.
Once a week, I pedal down and wander around a 9-hole course, chasing a stupid golf ball, often into the high grass. This is the Livingstone Royal Golf & Country Club, and it’s the most challenging, least pretentious golf setting I’ve seen. This course and the old dusty clubhouse are the stuff of lore.
A cheapskate paradise, too. Including green fees and decent rental clubs, the crew even provides three balls at no extra charge, plus a competent caddy with a sense of humor. All that with my customary tip comes to $15.
My regular caddy, Haggai, meets me promptly on any day except Saturday, his Sabbath. He isn’t the least bit self-conscious about his shoes falling apart.
“Haggai, how about we go buy some new shoes today?”
“No thanks Boss, I’m whoa-kay.”
Quick aside, there are retail shops in town that deal in used clothing. Called DAPP, or Development Aid from People to People, and from what I can see, the inventory is the surplus we Americans donate to thrift stores, on re-sale for anywhere from 50 cents to two dollars. A good pair of lightly-used shoes “retails” for around four dollars.
Back to golf, Haggai totes a single yellow flag out to the first tee box. We have one dedicated flag, because apparently the village people find the flagpoles useful. They are known to dash out of the brush and snag one to use back at the hut. Ergo, while I’m setting up to tee off, Haggai sprints a couple hundred yards ahead to lead me to target. Then, once we’re nearing the green, he sets the flag in the hole.
Unlike me, Haggai is a golfer. He claims he’s been playing his whole life, and based on his knowledge and decorum, I believe him. He gives good advice, plus he’s patient with my slices and quite adept at “bird dogging” my lost balls. The fairways are narrow and the grass on either side is as deep and thick as any I’ve ever seen. Haggai dives right in, me close behind; one of us usually finds my ball, or at least, a ball.
“Hey Haggai, how about we meet and play a round together next time?”
I reek at golf, stink up every hole, and Haggai knows it. “No thanks, Boss, I’m whoa-kay.”
Although we seem to like each other, he doesn’t want to play golf with me. That’s how I know he’s talented.
Spitting cobras are found in this region, maybe even slithering in that thick grass. They’re called “spitting” because they spit venom, and if that’s not creepy enough, the venom shoots out in a distinct geometric pattern. It’s harmless if the venom hits the skin, or even goes in your mouth. It’s aiming for your eyes, though, and it’s reported to have 90% accuracy from five feet, while moving. If the venom strikes, the cornea damage is enough to turn you permanently blind, faster than you can blink.
So I wear sunglasses and scan for snakes in the grass. Haggai? Not even fazed.
The clubhouse is re-opening after a period of lockdown. Peter and Nyambe, the owners, take me on a private tour of the trophy-filled foyer leading to the pub and parlor. All of it, original 1908 construction, turn-of-the-century style, from a bygone era just this side of the Victorian days. Rich, sagging woodwork, a chiefly British beat-up ambiance with the chandeliers cobwebbed, the fireplace dusty, the lounge chairs plush, deep, and a tad crunchy. I could dawdle here all day.
“Peter! Nyambe! Do you fancy a pint?!?”
This drinkery is so authentic, I can’t fight the urge to spout that out in my best British accent.
Twice now, I’ve joined two groups for a Saturday beach barbecue above the big waterfall, along the mighty Zambezi River, which is by most measures Africa’s second river after the Nile. Small groups of twenty-somethings play African music; they drink, they dance, they graze over the grill.
Some jump on me about standing too close to the water’s edge. Although the river is running high and the current is moving somewhat fast, the crocs are hiding all along these shores, and they are known to pounce, snatching a hapless human right in his tracks.
Zimbabwe is just down the road, that border station also shut tight. Angling for a photo out on the Victoria Falls bridge, the span over the no-man’s land that is the Zambezi gorge, the guards denied me in spite of my best attempts.
As a consolation prize, on my wandering way home, I happened into a family of giraffes. Their horse-like movements are almost more haunting than their height. To even fit one into my camera frame, I have to step 40 feet back.
Pause now and ponder the power of that cardiovascular pump. It keeps the blood moving up two or three stories high, right to the brain, back down, and around again.
Dreaming of a Science Lab
By chance I met the Headmaster of the Libuyu School, Mr. Morgan Chaambwa, who offered a campus tour. Libuyu is a public school serving a less advantaged community on Livingstone’s east side.
The school facilities are rudimentary, but respectable. Solidly constructed in 1964, two main brick buildings with a few broken windows house a student body of around a thousand pupils. From the chalkboards and classroom activities, it's clear how these Zambians seem so bright.
On an outdoor wall, in the sun facing five rows of concrete benches, I was struck speechless: Calculus, that awesome discovery of Isaac Newton, all over the blackboard.
There was even a classroom crammed with computers and pupils in matching uniforms, everyone wearing masks and hammering away on keyboards. I recognized the program on every screen: Microsoft Excel. That’s one powerful logic tool. Once upon a time I had it almost mastered, and that’s saying a lot because it’s bottomless. I’ve often said, an open Excel spreadsheet is to an analyst what a blank canvas is to a painter, or empty air to a musician. All represent blank spaces to fill with big ideas. The fact that they’re learning the power of computational processes bodes well for the future.
In stark contrast to that technology, there’s also a farm on the school grounds. There, the pupils grow cabbage, tomatoes, onions, you name it. Hands on a computer keyboard, then hands in the earth.
In Idaho, where I was lucky to have had my public school education, the schools were fields of manicured grass dotted with athletic facilities. The Libuyu school has none of that, interestingly enough. Just classrooms and the farm.
In passing, Mr. Chaambwa pointed out an unfinished biology and chemistry laboratory building. A big idea, stalled, now just a concrete foundation and walls of cinder block forming the footprint of two large classrooms totaling around 3,300 square feet.
“Our funds dried up two years ago, so we had to stop the project. It may be 10 years before we start again,” he lamented.
Later that night, I started getting my own big ideas. The opportunity of helping to finish that laboratory excites me. The next day, I called Mr. Chaambwa and requested another meeting.
Since then, we’ve surveyed the structure, met contractors, and held several meetings to hammer out the details and a realistic budget to finally complete and equip the science laboratory.
After nearly a month of groundwork, I’ve agreed to personally fund the completion of the basic building structure, including concrete works, the ring beam, roof, gables, and other fundamentals, which at the current favorable exchange rate commits me to around $10,000 and at least puts a covered, secure structure in place. Additional funds beyond my contribution will be necessary to completely finish, furnish, and equip the lab.
No time to waste, I’ve authorized and funded the resumption of work, which I anticipate will begin in earnest in early July. We’ve all agreed to take it one step at a time, re-assessing our progress at each stage.
With a bit of luck and some persistence, over the next half-century and beyond, this investment will spark scientific competence and inspire new generations, turning talented kids into much-needed health and science professionals. The “return on investment” in any developed country could be attractive. Here, it could yield a tremendous long-term return to Zambians.
It is said that true travelers don’t ever stop, they only make stopovers. This stopover has been longer than I might’ve ever imagined, but I’m hoping to leave something permanent behind before I get rolling again. If you, dear reader, could be interested in supporting the project financially, or even only morally, please reach out to me via email for details.
This is the sort of happy news we can actually make happen.