The day began as usual with my artificial cockerel crowing me awake at 5.15am. As I orientate myself within the cosmos, the need for coffee arises and is, following Philips welcome invitation of, ‘fancy a quick cuppa before we head’, swiftly satisfied. The roads are quiet as we head to the FMDM sisters across town, where Philip says Mass each morning. Their house is cool and welcoming. Six of us gather in a small oratory to begin the day in celebration and communion with Christ and one another (as the IEC2012 tells us). Mass is followed by some breakfast and nice conversation, all watched over by the convent cat, who has obviously seen it all before.
But today is going to be different. Today I head to Chibolya compound. A compound, in Zambian terms, is a name for an area of dense population, often with poor sanitation and facilities (could be described as a Slum but not on the scale of Kibera in Kenya or Calcutta but similar in many ways). Chibolya is no exception to this rule and, at first glance, may even be a standard setter within Lusaka. We (Sr’s Roda & Immaculata, Br Conelius and myself) enter the compound past, what appears to be, an industrial estate of sorts. It has rained recently and the enormous potholes have filled with brown, foul smelling water, like a nightmarish version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. We encounter a traffic jam at the entrance to the compound and with it two men who are charging vehicles 1,000Kwacha (about 17cent) to assist their passage through a series of water hazards. Just as my psyche was beginning to equate, on one hand, the audacity of this with, on the other, its sheer entrepreneurism, a man passes our vehicle dragging, what at first glance appeared to be, a dead pig. But as I am slowly realising nothing is ever what it seems to be here and with a squeal the pig springs to life only to be reprimanded in a most disturbing way by his custodian. My eyes traced their charted course and I could see that the pig’s fate was sealed and he would soon meet his executioner. The vehicle slammed to a halt. In front of us a barrow of recently deceased and dissected pigs had turned over, spilling, quite literally on to the road in front of us. As we slowly negotiated our course around this macabre scene, men pushed the barrow in an attempt to right it again but, in doing so, where covered in pig entrails; I smiled as I saw some small justice in this for the pigs: they had the final laugh on this occasion.
Feeling a moment of connectedness between pig and person, as two expressions of the same Creator, and an intense un-comfortableness in the way latter treated the former, I declared in no uncertain terms: ‘That’s the last time I’m eating meat!’, much, I might add, to the amusement of my African counterparts. Now don’t get me wrong, I would be hypocritical to go on a crusade about meat eating BUT this was different. For me what I saw was undignified and unethical: the animal was cruelly treated and brutally slaughtered. It was a mere commodity, to be used in whatever way the user saw fit and therefore, it became for me a metaphor for the ‘user-culture’ that exists in this place and many other places, not alone here but right around the world. My cry to abstain from meat was a cry of solidarity with all in this place, who have been used, treated cruelly or slaughtered at the hands of those you see life as a mere commodity. My crusade continues….
We met Pastor Joshua outside the Coptic Church. As we waited the vehicle was flanked by children interested to see who was coming into their area, cries of ‘Musungu’ (white-man) came from toddlers, to whom I obviously appeared far more interesting than I usually do. There is no hiding a white face here and again entering this experience helps me connect, in some small way, with all those who come to our shores looking, in hope, for a new life. I am very much an outsider here and I feel it. People stare and sometimes pass comments….just like we do. Geographical distance is obviously not a measure of distance between mindsets, we are more alike than we credit. The Pastor brought us to our venue for the week, the local civic centre, which doubles as a distribution centre for ‘Clorin’, a chemical added to water in an effort to increase its drinkability. Though one lady, Josephine, tells us that it’s a delicate balance, if the Clorin is too enthusiastically added, then it causes gastric problems. It comes in a stage little blue bottle with a yellow lid, which reminds me of the bottles of bubbles was got as kids….strange what passes through your mind!
We are delivering a five day drug and alcohol awareness programme to thirty community activists and workers. The group is diverse: housewives, a pastor, young men, old women and a police officer. They are an engaging and jovial group and inside these walls it’s easy to forget the reality of life outside, as the air fills with jokes, smiles, conversation and laughter. The course ran as any training course would anywhere: ice-breakers, tea-breaks and break-out sessions. The participants spoke openly about life in the compound and, despite the difficulties, of how proud they are of Chibolya. At lunch I spoke with three women who began to tell me of Chibolya’s success stories. Of young people who had graduated from the local school and gone on to hold positions in the Civil Service, Air Force, Law and Medicine. They beamed as they weaved connections between themselves and these success stories, wanting to be associated with this good news….and why not, it is good news after all and should be celebrated by the whole community. In fact, by telling you about it, I too am associating myself with it and, as you tell others, so will you and suddenly 8,000km disappears as we celebrate this good news together.
They tell me that Chibolya is in a process of rejuvenation and renewal. The streets are, slowly, becoming safer. The Pastor says that a few years ago, they would never have dreamed of running a course like this because of the associated danger. This course, as I see it, is doing two things: firstly, it’s up-skilling the community on the dangers and risks of alcohol and drug abuse for the individual, the community and society as a whole. Secondly, and probably most significantly, it is beginning a conversation within the community. They are beginning to network with each other, support each other and listen to each other’s stories. They want Chibolya to continue to improve for the sake of their children, and based on their drive, energy and pride, it has no choice but to.
The journey home was to turn into an Indiana Jones style escapade. The rains had flooded the already saturated gravel roads of the compound so we had organised a taxi to bring us down-town. When it arrived, I could tell by the drivers face that we were in for something special. He had driven into the compound from the city, gotten stuck in a mud hole, had to pay some local entrepreneurs 35,000 K to get out and water had leaked into the interior of his car….all before he picked us up! His mantra for the remainder of the journey was ‘My first and last time to Chibolya! My first and last time to Chibolya!’. We went back, as the Gospel tells us ‘by another way’ as, I presume, the driver didn’t fancy another charge from the locals. The next 30 minutes was sheer insanity, as our poor chariot, a Japanese import version of a Toyota Corolla, struggled through enormous pot holes filled with muddy water, which came up over the bonnet in some cases. Bemused children played in the rain wondering what level of egit was driving past them. As we drove, our poor driver became more anxious and his mantra became more intense until we reached some semblance of a road and freedom….or so I thought. Our driver had had enough. He parked off the road and decanted us into what appeared to be a passing car; the Sister’s seemed to think this was ok, so I followed close behind. Our driver told the Sisters (in Nyanja: the local language) that his ‘heart was broken’ and that was the first person in his family to own a car and he feared it was ruined (considering it cut out three times in the middle of giant puddles, he may not have been far wrong. Fingers crossed for him that Japanese reliability holds firm this time). Our new driver, a young man, was pleasant and quiet and greeted me with the customary ‘Hello Boss!’.
We inched our way through Soweto Market, a cramped and disorientating series of shack styled stalls selling anything you could imagine. Between the traffic, rain soaked people weave their way home: business people, school kids, drunks and traders with overladen wheelbarrows . They bounce off the car as much as they rain giving an amoeba type effect, as we were swallowed whole into this place and time and there was nothing we could do, just sit, wait and be grateful that we were on this side of the car door. To distract my overactive imagination, I struck up conversation with our silent driver but this provided little solace as he seemed only interested in pointing out the worst (or best, depending on your outlook) spots for carjacking and snatching in the market and, it seemed that we were passing, painfully slowly, through all of them. But he assured us he knew all the thieves VERY well, which I think was supposed to put us at ease!
At last Downtown appeared on the horizon. As we waited to turn into our rendezvous point, I saw a local bus pass by. These ‘busses’ (converted HiAce vans) all have slogans on the front and back windscreen such as ‘Born to be Wild’ or ‘God Only Knows’ but this one said ‘Heaven, I need a hug’ and I said Amen!