Saturday, 21 November 2009

An unplanned stop in Zambia

It’s funny how some of the most unplanned days end up being the most memorable. Today should have been an ordinary drive day from Lilongwe over the Zambian border to Croc Valley camp on the outskirts of South Luangwa national park.

We arrived at the border around 11am and were held there for well over an hour merely due to typical African bureaucracy. Not only did we have to fill out all the usual forms, there was also a log book to complete, vehicle forms and even a toll to get through the barrier. It took a fair while for the guy behind the desk (there’s always only one person regardless how busy the border is) to process and stamp our passports. We then had to wait for nearly an hour for the toll man to arrive. His role is to collect the toll and raise the gate but he was nowhere to be found so we had to just sit and wait.

Crossing the border it’s immediately obvious that there is more money in Zambia than Malawi. I counted at least three satellite dishes in the first small village we came across – something I saw only very rarely in Malawi. Zambia is by no means rich: the people still work the land to make a meager living but their meager living is just not quite as meager as it would be in Malawi.

From the border town of Chilapa where we changed up some money, we had a 120km drive across a dusty, potholed track to the national park. This was the only road in or out and it would take at least 3.5 hours to get to camp…on a good day!

We started our teeth shattering, back jolting drive through local farmland but after half an hour and a odd sound emanating from one part of the truck, we came to an abrupt holt. Tim inspected the truck, only to find a bolt on a key piece of the cab had worked its way off. Apparently, this was a particularly important bolt as without it, the whole truck could topple over….especially on the road we were currently on.

We offloaded again and Tim got on with tinkering with the truck. Our presence at the side of the road started to draw a crowd and a group of young children ran towards the truck to see what was going on. Following them were older siblings and even parents until the whole village of 20 odd people had come to have a look.

The children were dressed simply in ill-fitting charity clothes. They had no shoes and many had the distended bellies characteristic of either protein deprivation or parasitic infections of the gut. One little boy was completely bow legged and ran awkwardly towards us, excited to join in. A little girl carried her little younger sister on her back.

We were going to be there for a while so we decided to resort to the international language of football. Someone grabbed a football from the truck and kicked it out into the group. Our little dirt patch on the side of the road erupted in excitement as a mass of children’s bodies began to dart from side to side following the ball in a cloud of red dust. And so began our kickabout with the locals.

Michelle, Jolie and I got stuck into the frenetic fray and were charged from all sides every time we got the ball. When I winced as the ball hurtled towards my face, the young lads burst out laughing finding it hysterical that I could be afraid of the ball. The young girl sat her little sister on the wall and joined in; even the parents got involved, one father showing us a few keepy-uppy tricks whilst a little child clung to his side.

After half an hour or so Tim decided he didn’t have the bits he needed to fix the truck so he flagged a car down that was heading back into town so that he could go and find spare parts.

For the next two hours we spent our time being run ragged at football, talking to some of thevchildren and then playing ‘memory’ with a pack of cards. Unfortunately, everyone wanted to join in so Jolie was utterly surrounded by both children and parents. She tried in vain to teach the crowd the art of turn taking with little success…it was immensely funny to watch as a dozen hands kept trying to turn cards over at the same time.

When I got my camera out to take a few photos, the kids were absolutely fascinated. They loved nothing more than all trying to get into the picture then pulling silly faces. When I showed them the photo I’d taken they’d all roar with laughter and take the Mic out of each other.

Tom then got the speakers in the passenger cab going and some of the kids burst into dance .Ravi and Carmela picked up a stick and so began a limbo competition. By this time Tim was back and was putting the final touches to the fix so it was not long after we started playing limbo that the engine roared back into life and we had to get on board once more.

It was sad to say goodbye and the disappointment in the children’s faces was all too clear to see. All of us had had a fantastic afternoon and for me it meant more than any organized tour I could have done on this trip. To spend an afternoon bonding with these beautiful people with just a ball, a stick and a pack of playing cards to break down the language and cultural barriers was one of those great experiences in life. And for once in Africa, we were asked for nothing but our friendship.

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