Incomplete - The Dress She Wore - Zambian Life
My sister lived 250 miles away from me in Kitwe in the Copperbelt whilst I lived with my husband in the relatively sophisticated city of Lusaka in Zambia. We were still the best of friends then, and talked as frequently as our unreliable telephone system would allow, on the telephones of the offices we both worked in as secretaries. We saw each other regularly, as my husband and I made the dangerous journey north to see my parents who lived 60 miles from her in Chingola, the town of our childhood.
Zambia had then had independence for less then ten years, President Kenneth Kuanda ruled the country after winning A One Party Democracy vote, and the country was already crumbling. Theft, rape, murder, the disappearance of people, corruption, lack of doctors and medical facilities, shortages of medicine, food, fuel, and even the basic mealie meal and kapenta for the majority of the population was in short supply. "Instant Justice" gangs were often witnessed on the street, a terrifying crowd of men, chasing some hapless, hungry person who had stolen something, often food - who would chase the perpetrator through the streets and beat them mercilessly, right there on the street or the pavement, whilst people went about their daily business. Calling the police was a joke, they were untrained, inefficient, and corrupt, and lawlessness reigned. Fences and taps and roofs and lawns were stolen, hunger overode the unlikely fear of being arrested, and schools and public buildings fell into disrepair, an air of neglect and decay and despondency cloaked this once happy place.
Each night, we barricaded ourselves into our homes, fearful for our lives. We surrounded ourselves with barbed wire fences, big dogs, sturdy burglar bars on every window, powerful lights which shone on every corner of the house, and locked our way down into our bedrooms, locking every door and window in the house. Lock kitchen, lock hallway, lock bathroom, lock spare room, one dog in hallway, one dog in kitchen, and one dog in bedroom. The windows shut tight, in that heat, to avoid 'muti' being blown in by robbers, which would make us sleep so deeply we would not wake up to intruders. We parked our car in a garage with walls of concrete a foot thick, with massive iron gates, and then (even I knew how to do this) removed the rotor from the engine, placed a Krook Lok around the clutch and the steering wheel, locked the doors and padlocked the gates. And cars were still stolen. One night we parked outside IBM for 15 minutes to make a phone call, and when we came out, all four tyres and the battery had been stolen from our car. We felt grateful our car was still there.
The 24 hour 'security service' which oversaw this whole lengthy procedure each night was often responsible for organising the robberies, and insurance was unavailable. There was a shortage of skilled labour. Teachers, so our schools were frequently unmanned, and people sent their children away to boarding school in other countries - mining personnel, that combined with the effects of a global economy, sent our copper price plunging, the mainstay of our country - doctors and dentists were in short supply and people travelled elsewhere for treatment, often coming home with suitcases filled with tinned and dried food and toiletries. Many people, like we eventually did, left for safer places.
Amongst all this turmoil and trouble, with scarcely food to eat, we could still buy the finest French wines and champagne.
Why did we stay there, I have often been asked, as long as we did? The simple answer is that it was our home, and who wants to leave that, no matter how unpleasant it becomes. You only have to look at battered wives, who often choose to stay because they have no choice, this is at least familiar territory as terrifying as it is. But the truth for us, I believe, is that leaving ones family and home is so painful and so difficult, that we put blinkers on, so as not to see the mayhem and poverty and lawlessness and inequality around us, in order to continue living there. We close down our peripheral vision, until 'something happens' and we discover we are looking at life through a tiny telescope, focussing only on what is exactly in front of us, blotting out the pain and the misery and the corruption all around us, and the sick morals of the land we love. We do this in order to keep living in our home, in an unconscious, but none the less deliberate, attempt to survive in 'our world'. And we pay a price. We have to blot out lots of what we see, we have to pretend we are managing, that our hearts and souls are not damaged by the experience, we have to harden our hearts to injustice and poverty, we have to ensure our own survival in the jungle, we must walk every day past people begging for food, and we justify our behaviour, there are too many after all to help, and there is not enough to go round. We must cease questioning our values, and take them out for examination only in private. We live in fear, protecting our lives and our property, our stress levels go through the roof, our health suffers, and compassion takes a holiday.