This is Africa
By the time my taxi was surrounded by the dozen or so men yelling and calling out in Bemba or Nyanja or Chewa, jostling and pressing against our windows and doors, knocking, banging, slapping the car, reaching outside and inside and jogging alongside as we entered the dark, dirty, wet, Intercity Bus Depot at 4:30AM, I’d already flown three legs from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to Lusaka, where I’d slept for two hours in a completely empty airport. The information desk agent, gone by the time I woke, told me it was best to stay there rather than go to the depot at that time of the morning. Now I could see why.
“I’m not getting out of the taxi,” I told the driver, who’d already asked 400 kwacha for a ride I knew should cost half that, and who would be far from the last to overcharge for his services.
“They will leave you alone once you buy a ticket,” he told me.
But to the uninitiated, it was a hollow promise in a moment that felt like being left to a frenzied, angry mob. And besides, there was nowhere to buy a ticket. There was no lobby. No building. No bus station for that matter. Just an unlit, broken concrete, dirt, puddle-filled, chain-linked lot with haphazardly parked, unlit buses and shuttles, men in street clothes hurrying about, to where and why I had no idea, the closest of them still pushing and yelling and knocking on the windows of my taxi. Leaving the relative safety of the car and being left in the lot, alone, with full backpacks, was simply not happening.
The left side of the lot was lined by a row of rundown, side-by-side shacks. Most were closed, the hinged plywood windows down and locked for the night. In an open one a man leaned lazily out, a bottle of water and off-brand Fanta and Coca-Cola on the sill next to him, advertising his wares. Later that morning, in the shack next to his, a woman would pull a Iive chicken from a box atop her sill, bend down out of sight, and slaughter it. Whether to cook it or sell as is, I don’t know.
I told the taxi driver he needed to take me to UBZ himself, the bus company I’d randomly chosen of the ones he told me would be driving to Livingstone. I didn’t know where it was, but even if this mob would take me there unscathed it would be at a cost. At best, a hundred or so kwacha for the help. Antea, a Croatian friend I would meet in coming days – a very experienced world traveler – had her cellphone stolen in the madness here just days before.
My demand required our driving across the depot, through puddles and around the buses and shuttles, the men running alongside our car throughout. We would park atop a sidewalk with the help of three men giving my taxi driver unnecessary guidance to help us get the wheels up over the curbing. I would leave my large pack in the locked taxi, but carry the daypack with my laptop inside, my phone and passport in my zippered front pants pocket.
The man at UBZ, a lit but otherwise indistinguishable shack among a row of others, wouldn’t sell me a ticket there, for reasons I couldn’t understand. Instead, he walked us back through the depot, through a dimly lit, corrugated-steel-roofed market of sorts, where dozens upon dozens of Zambians slept on the concrete, some doubled up, most with blankets pulled up and over their heads. Others slept impossibly curled on plastic chairs, while still others stared at us, at me, from beneath hoods and knit hats as we walked through and past.
We would make our way back to where we first stopped our taxi, where another man in street clothes would be summoned by the group, which still numbered over a half dozen hustlers. Three of them carried a wooden podium over to where we stood in the middle of the dirt lot surrounded by people and buses and shacks and puddles while I looked left and right and slid my pack around to ensure its zippers were still in place. The ticket man carried a large binder that he placed atop the podium, opened it, and found a middle page where still-unused bus ticket carbons began, carefully flattening the page with the back of his right hand, the great pride he took in his work and apparent position on display for all. He licked the tip of his pencil while three others shown their cellphone flashlights upon the page, and he began taking my information.
I would give him 300 kwacha for a 285 kwacha ticket. He had no change. No one here ever does.
“Make sure you get the change before you get on the bus,” the taxi driver said of my eighty-five cents. I would get the change, but had to ask no less than five times over the next several hours, long after I’d gotten on, and only after we’d arrived in Livingstone. It seems like a lot of work for less than a dollar, of course, but when it happens every day for weeks on end, it not only adds up, it gets pretty damn tiring.
I would refuse all help with my larger pack, pointedly explaining it was in fact a back-pack, that I wear on my back, pulling it from the hands of others and telling them to back the fuck off. Unless you get more than a little aggressive here, you lose. Nothing is free in Zambia. Or in Tanzania before, I’d learned. Everything comes with the request for a tip, even doing nothing, like the airport employee in Zanzibar. He’d followed me into the bathroom and stood by the door while I used the urinal. I saw out of the corner of my eye that he was dancing in the mirror. I finished and washed my hands, drying them in my hair and on my shirt, since there were no towels and no air dryer. He was standing in front of the door when I tried to leave.
“Tip?” he said, holding out an open palm.
“Tip? For what?”
“Come on, my friend, tip me.”
I would give him no tip, of course, beyond listing the things he didn’t do to earn a shilling or two. Like open the door, turn on the faucet, hand me a paper towel, all the things none of us need help with, but for which I’d be willing to toss a coin or two to wash away the sadness I felt for another man willing to work an airport mens room. Any mens room.
My 5AM bus had left an hour before, requiring no explanation beyond “this is Africa.” The next, scheduled for 7:30, wouldn’t leave until after 8, beginning an eight-hour ride to Livingstone. I had bid my taxi driver adieu long before, slightly more content with having paid double the kwacha after making him stick around and work a little harder for it. He was right, of course. Once I had my ticket in hand, the mob abandoned me, my business and tip potential gone. This is, I and others would learn, their normal way of assaulting the senses of every customer who comes to Intercity. Our friend Daisy, a local, would later say she thought the government had cracked down on this method of salesmanship, which to the uninitiated truly feels like you’re about to be dragged from your car and rousted about. Disquieting is being kind, and something truly needs to be done about it before it escalates into violence and injury and warnings for tourists not to come at all.
Then again, a lot needs to be done about a lot of things here. It’s one more sign of the economic hardships in Zambia and neighboring countries hit hard by Covid. Countries whose citizens eat or starve based on the tourist industry. Today is all that matters. They’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
When Covid closed Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park (Victoria Falls) in Zambia for three months, there were no unemployment benefits. The locals were simply told to go home, no pay, no such thing as severance. To eat, many had to return to villages like Mukuni, where family helped feed them, and in return they sold maize at roadside stands or in the middle of the road itself. Thankfully, here at least, they were not suffering drought when Corona hit, so there was enough food to share to get them through – but no money to pay rent or other bills.
When the park reopened, the hours were shorter, and the visitors fewer. Those who did visit were more likely to be Zambians unwilling to pay tourist prices. The village curio markets suffered, the amazing craftsmen who make all of the wooden animal carvings and jewelry by hand left with no one to buy their artwork. With few tourists to shop, they often sell for less than it costs to make these pieces, explaining that its better to go home with some kwacha in their pocket rather than none. Not yet having memorized the conversion rates, only later would I realize I’d bartered the price for two necklaces and a bracelet down to $2.45. I like a good deal, but not at the expense of a truly talented artist who is simply trying to live. I would later work with Lisa Pensula, a photographer and videographer from Lusaka, on ideas to help educate tourists about the process and value of the pieces for which they’re bartering.
The struggle is far from limited to the the villagers of Mukuni, the town of Livingstone, or even Zambia. The people I have met on the streets and in my travels here, all interesting and kind, are in need, and all, eventually, get around to their ask.
Just this morning, Joel from Rwanda sent a message of his grandmother’s need for hospitalization. “Anything would help,” he wrote.
Chipo, a young man who beautifully sang a John Legend tune on the streets of Livingstone one day, casually mentioned that his phone was dying because his charger no longer seems to be working, but he couldn’t afford to buy a new one.
James’ shoulder needed xrays, and his blood pressure medicine had run out since he’d been taking two pills a day to relieve the stress of his house staff job. His appeal for help paying rent for his family’s home had come weeks earlier.
Chabuta needs bags for the seedlings he’s planting through his nonprofit program, Youth For A Green Environment.
Padox needs money for the amazing Seed School in Kibera. And then a member of his larger nonprofit, The Seed Foundation, unexpectedly passed away, the funeral expenses falling on him. “Anything would help,” he too would write.
Berlin wants to open her dream store in Paje, selling her fashions and home-made skin care products. She saved enough for the first month’s rent on her $40 apartment, but needs three months advance on her $65 per month store. It will be rented to someone else tomorrow if she can’t pay. And, of course, she can’t. “Can you help?” she would ask.
Moses just finished his exams, and if he only had a laptop, he could apply for scholarships in America.
And Peace, my Maasai friend from Arusha, requested 85,000,000 TZS for a Toyota Landcruiser that recently came up for sale. It would help make his safari guide dreams a reality.
It doesn’t end with those I’ve spent time with. People on the streets of Livingstone and Arusha join me as I walk past, as I walk anywhere, everywhere. I can see them coming from the corner of my eye, jumping up from their seat on the roadside when I pass. They’ll quickly get around to their request – money – for food, for family, before changing tactics and offering trades for my carabiner, my water bottle, but they’re necessities for me, and besides, they have nothing to trade anyway. So then it becomes an ask for my tee shirt, even the very socks I’m wearing. “Anything with help” seems to be the common refrain.
They do leave me alone once I explain that I’m a backpacker with nothing extra, and no room to carry more, pointing to the $2 bracelet I’m wearing, the locally-made one I buy in each country as evidence I’ve already shopped. But saying no to a man asking for the socks I’m wearing, socks I’ve worn more than a few times between washings, socks in which I’ve been walking the streets for hours in the hot African sun, weighs on me. It feels selfish in the face of such need, and while I do occasionally give, my sense of empathy overwhelming my sense of self, I can’t say yes to everyone. I wish I could. My fellow travelers agree. We carry the minimum for ourselves, and we’d soon be out of shillings, out of kwacha, out of tee shirts and out of socks.
So instead we say, I’m sorry, man. I really can’t. I’m so sorry. And we carry on to our lunches or dinners, to grab a beer, some of us taking that sunset cruise on the Zambezi, others of us taking a walk with rhino, going for a death-defying dip in Angel’s Pool, a stroll along Victoria Falls – or a flight above them – all while learning to avert our eyes, learning how to give nothing, when in a very real sense, anything at all will help.
“Art is a language, and the people here are simply speaking it.”
– Nathan Kabachani, Livingstone, Zambia
Zambia was an amazing country, offering both the wonders of beautiful Africa and a stark reminder of the hardships life here has to offer. The people are in need, and tourists are the answer. While taxi bait-and-switches, tourist pricing, and requests for money or trades can be tiring, at the same time more than a few of us noticed that so many of the people here, the villagers in particular, seem to be quite content and even happy with the little they have. More content than most Europeans or Americans we know, reminding us that happiness isn’t necessarily found in material items or big numbered bank accounts, but in family, food, shelter, a photo to laugh at, and sometimes just a bunch of guys breaking into song and dance on a raft in the middle of a lake.