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Teddy’s Wedding in Kitwe

where all Zambia adventures begin

We hopped on the early bus and shot through the cool Zambian morning northward to the Copperbelt. We were going to Kitwe, where our friend Teddy Sampa was getting married. It was to be my first Zambian wedding.

broke down bus-skis

broke down bus-skis

But we were waylaid. The bus had trouble, and we could smell the burning rubber of a brake problem. The bus slowed to the side of the road then stopped. After some minutes on the phone with head office, the conductor informed us that another bus was on its way. We were already 200km plus from where we began, so it would be a wait.

Deciding to brave the noonday sun, we went walking in search of lunch. We bought four plain buns, but plenty of sweet potato, though none of it was cooked. Back at the bus, we drank the complimentary soda that we had earlier declined. It was hot, and we read or novels and dozed, and sure enough the other bus came a bit shy of three hours later.

Late in the afternoon we arrived in Kitwe. What a nice place: broad streets, well-kept (though small) city parks, and a lively downtown. At After Ten, an Indian owned restaurant chain, a shy waitress served us the best Greek salad and chicken biryani to be found in Zambia. We walked to find a cheap but cute rest house, Lynda’s Lodge, and showered before slipping into our dress clothes.

Teddy with a big ol' smile

Teddy with a big ol' smile

The wedding was lots of dancing, frequent power outages, and pleasant food. Teddy beamed throughout, showing he was truly happy as most Zambian wedding grooms, as a customary rule, fix their most stern scowls for the duration of the reception. None of our photos turned out due to the low light and my camera’s low battery.

rh-u-u-u-mba!!

rh-u-u-u-mba!!

All was finished by 10 PM for weddings end early here. So we scooped up the bridesmaids, slipped back to our lodge where we had one or two, and hopped a cab for the closest club. For a dollar’s cover charge we entered La Frontier (reminding us of our closeness to the Congo) and danced to rhumba and Zam-pop until our freshly-pressed wedding attire was sweaty and disheveled.

The bus ride back the next morning was uneventful, which was a restful ending to a great weekend of fun and friends.

We are suffering

For my first two months back in Zambia this year, I stayed in a small house of the address 540 Kabwata. The neighbourhood is a little medium-density suburb of Lusaka close to the centre of town. This was where I was living from September up until going home at Christmastime. But while last year at 540 Kabwata were great, these two months back were grim.

The reason: way too much rain.

And so our home lost it street address for a new moniker: Swamp Kabwata. Swamp was so much more fitting given that

  1. our main street was now completely destroyed—formerly gravel, it was now long pools of stagnant water broken up lumpy rocky outcroppings;
  2. standing water ran right up to our doorstep (though thankfully no further);
  3. concrete stepping stones were required to get from our doorstep to the main (non) road;
  4. the ditches were all silted in;
  5. any trees remaining from the deluge were now trampled by people searching for a dry place to walk;
  6. stuck automobiles were commonplace;
  7. I wore gumboots to work.

It was enough to make you cry. Or make you angry. Critters started rooming in our house to stay dry. Flies seemed to have no where else to go. I became completely lethargic: just the thought of journeying to the road sapped my ambition. Our Zambian flat-mate, Marvin, who owns a construction company and can’t help but bring his work home with him, seemed mostly unperturbed: the welding and metal grinding of his makeshift machine shop continued un-abated on the porch (nevermind that his power cords were submerged in water).

It was all summed up very well one day by a shopkeeper whose canteen had been washed half a block down river (down road).

“We are suffering.”

If it doesn’t say Harvetile

I am certain that this must have been blogged about before. It’s almost too good to be true, too easy. Maybe they even meant to do it, you know, as a prank.

Whatever the history, I give to you Exhibit A: How a Marketer Loses His Job.

Maximum Tolerance to Failure v. Idiot-Proof

A wee bit overwrought for you business types

In a meeting with Dunavant, Zambia’s largest cotton producer, the managing director cuts me off in the middle of explaining our mobile payment system to say:

“Just do whatever you want as long as it’s idiot-proof.”

Considering that I was explaining a roll-out of this system to his field staff and shed managers, that could’ve been taken as a bit of a slight. Instead, I take it as a bit of classic business realism: even the simplest things will be screwed up by well-intentioned fools and it pays to be prepared for it.

Nothing mind-blasting here. But the reason it’s so refreshing is because so often the development sector just doesn’t get this. They’re more concerned with possibilities than what they can actually pull off.

This was duly noted by a crusty English development worker, Eric Dudley, when he wrote in his book “The Critical Villager” that development ideas should be engineered for “maximum tolerance to failure”. In effect, he was exhorting his readers to make their designs idiot-proof so as to actually achieve some success instead of swept away in delusions of what could have been.

“Maximum tolerance to failure” v. “idiot-proof”. The second is some much pithier. Leave it to ‘development’ as a whole to over-complicate things. Leave it to business to get things done.

It’s one more reason why the methods of most modern NGOs are hopelessly unsuitable to making things happen: it takes a veteran author coining an elaborate phrase to sum up an idea every mediocre businessperson already knows.

Probably looked better on paper

this probably looked better on paper

this probably looked better on paper

Um, ye-ah.

“Well, really, you see the thing is, Sir… we’ve had a down-turn in our last quarter.” 

“A down-turn?”

“Yeah, and, um, well finances have dried up, Sir, for the most part.”

“For the most part?”

“Yes, that’s what I said, for the most part. So, you see, we’ve had to put construction on temporary hold. We’ll refinance our debt, secure new lines of credit, and be back on track next month.”

“Really?”

“Well, actually, no. We’ve flat run out of money from betting the farm on copper prices. Those have tanked. So now I suggest we liquidate assets and get the heck outta dodge. The market for Zambian high-rise office space just fell of a cliff, and it’d be best if we weren’t the last ones to leave the party, if you catch my drift… Sir.”

“Um, ye-ah.”

“Ye-ah, Sir. This whole thing probably looked better on paper, huh?”

It’s Independence Day and the power’s out.

Too few sightings todayIt’s Independence Day and the power’s out.

Not a big surprise, really. The load shedding schedule in the newspaper is really just a small fraction of the daily brown outs. Though it does make me wonder on this 45th birthday of Zambia’s, just how do Zambians connect to this holiday that celebrates the birth of their nation?

Talk to the old timers and you can hear about when crowds flocked to Independence Stadium in the tens of thousands for a raucous celebration with Coke and scones freely handed out to everyone. Bursting with pride and excitement were the Independence Days of back then.

But those are the same old timers that’ll tell me that our neighbourhood’s dusty road used to be paved and lined with streetlights with electricity flowing non-stop like Vic Falls after the rainy season.

A young Zambian co-worker, when I asked her what her Independence weekend plans would be, told me they’d be nothing out of the ordinary. “I don’t really connect with this holiday anymore,” she said. “Not many of my generation do.”

That seemed to sum up the situation in Lusaka today: the nation’s capital was celebrating the nation’s birthday with all the bravado of a laundromat’s Grand Opening. Hardly a flag or a banner to be seen in town, though sure, a few more people than normal were sporting Zambia’s green, black, red and orange. Maybe the bravado of a regular season hockey game.

Though I don’t know the flow of Zambian history like a local does. Did celebrating Independence Day quickly change from lively to not-so-much once copper prices tanked in the 80s? Or was it a gradual decline from exuberance to this? I’m still trying to calibrate—maybe I shouldn’t have such a foreign look of shock at the low-key nature of this national holiday. Maybe the Chez Ntemba dance club will be particularly lively tonight, like July 1st on Whyte Ave.

For now, though, power’s off, dinner’s on hold, neighbourhood’s quiet, mosquitoes are out—Independence Day, check.


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Working to include smallholder farmers in agricultural markets, we know there are no easy answers. This blog is a place to ask "What does it take to make it work?" and to share what we're seeing and learning.
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