Waiting in Solwezi

It is the second day of October 2013. I am sitting in the passenger seat of the big World Wildlife Fund SUV. I am with the driver. Vincent, Mwiya and the Times of Zambia Ndola Office Journalist are inside the Shoprite store buying provisions for the long journey to Musele. The vehicle windows are down. It is a hot October morning.  This is the ancient land of the Luba-Lunda KIngdom. People mined copper and iron here for centuries, before white settlers arrived. The Berlin Conference of 1884 split their kingdom into the Belgian Congo and what was to become the British territory of Northern Rhodesia. then the first of the plundering corporations in the form of the British South Africa Company under Cecil Rhodes moved in.

Solwezi is bustling with informal traders, it is an ant heap of humanity. Mine trucks rumble by, minibus taxis hoot incessantly to attract passengers, all sorts of vehicles vie for places in overcrowded dusty streets. Street vendors, children, young people, men and women squeeze through the thousands of street stalls. Dust and colour everywhere.

No white people on foot, all pedestrians are black. Like everywhere else in Southern Africa whites are ensconced either behind high security walls, or in the mobile safety bubbles they use to move from one fortified and exclusive space to the next.

Generally Whites seem to fear Africa, they fear its teeming life and its ripe fertility – it is not sufficiently sanitised for their taste. They fear its hospitable embrace, its unconditional generosity – it suffocates and stifles their protestant stinginess. Perhaps their fear of the continent and its people is born of guilt, the guilt that comes with corporate plunder.

In their fortified enclosures, their golf estates, they can recreate Europe or Apartheid South Africa as at the Kansanshi Golf Estate in Solwezi. Canada’s First Quantum Minerals operate the Kansanshi Mine in Solwezi using white expatriates mainly from South Africa to manage the cheap black Zambian labour (see the photos at the fb page of Kansanshi Golf Estate at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kansanshi-Golf-Estate-Community/151027025018005).

The white expatriate community of Solwezi hardly venture out of this estate into Solwezi proper, they are an enclave population residing on an island of obscene opulence and corpulence in a sea of extreme poverty. Corporate colonialism has replaced the colonisation of the 19th century. Corporate colonialism allows Africans control of politics, while the ownership of the resource dependant economies is firmly in the grip of global mining and extractive corporations.

Sitting and dozing off, I dreamily look out the passenger window when a black leper grossly deformed by this terrible affliction move into my vision asking for money. I only have Rands on me and give him ten. He moves off. Just as I doze off again I hear the terrified scream of a woman/girl. A young Zambian woman runs in between the cars, an angry man in pursuit. She sees me and stops abruptly right next to by window. He stops in his tracks and makes an abrupt u-turn. Her strategy pays off, he is clearly afraid of me, probably because of my race, probably because of the big official looking vehicle I am sitting in.

She points at the camera on my lap and giggles. I look at the camera and back at her. “You want me to take your picture?” She nods, “Yes.”
“Stand a little bit back!” I say. she takes a few tentative steps back and I take the picture. I wave her closer, “come see.” She comes closer and I show her the picture. She giggles shyly and moves off.

I wonder where Mwiya might be. I notice the arrival of a Zambian policeman armed with an AK47 coming in through the gate, I observe another also in the yard of Shoprite shop some distance away to the right. I see Mwiya standing in the shade of a big flame tree. I get out of the car. The big camera swinging from my neck.

I walk up to Mwiya and we start chatting about how much time we are losing because the shop is so busy and Vincent is stuck in a long line at the tills inside the shop. We chat about how destructive these South African franchise grocery shops are of the local economy and agriculture. I see the young Zambian policeman with his AK47 approaching us cautiously.

“I hear that you are taking some pictures!” he says hesitantly. Mwiya responds indignantly, “Is it now against the law to take pictures in Zambia?!” I decide that the best option is to be friendly instead. “Hi, my name is David van Wyk. I am with the Bench Marks Foundation. I am a researcher.” I extend my hand, “Pleased to meet you, who are you?”
He smiles immediately, “I am Cuthbert. I am with the Zambian Police.” We shake hands the tension is broken. “This is Mwiya, he works with me, and we are with Vincent from the World Wild Life Fund. He is in the shop buying our provisions before we go to Musele. What is this about?”
“We have been put on high alert after the terrorist attack on the Shopping Mall in Nairobi,” he answers. “Oh, I understand,” I say.
“Look let me show you my pictures… There are none of the shop.” While I show him the pictures I venture, “Don’t you think that terrorists would rather use their cellphones to take pictures of the shop rather than a big camera?” We then talk about his childhood, his education and his aspirations. We shake hands and he leaves…"Do you want me to take your picture?"Big trucks, vehicles and taxis squueze through the street tradeStreet scene Solwezi


One comment

  1. Good to see you writing again David. Your piece makes me think about the first car I ever had – a Mazda 323. Getting it was a liberation – I was in my early twenties and it meant independence. One of the first things I did was to drive to Zimbabwe. I know someone there and it was the furthest place I could go. I’d never been to Zimbabwe before and wanted a grand adventure.

    I remember being advised that I’d be raped. How terrible the border crossing would be. How unwise it was for a young woman to go off into the unknown like that… into Africa.I laughed all the bad advice off. I didn’t get the fear. In many ways it – in and of itself – looked like a giant chimera. I had this intuitive understanding that the closer I got to it, the more fearful I’d become. I was happy in my curiosity, and wanted to stay that way.

    There is much I remember about that trip. Mostly I remember my heart flying out my chest when I road across Beit Bridge with my little car radio booming. I felt so free and alive. And so much in love with the sheer possibility of life.

    I had no expectation of Zimbabwe… but what I discovered there was beauty, friendship, gentleness and curiosity looking right back at me. That was the first of many, many journeys.

    Now that I am getting older I wonder about the Chimera and why so many walk closer to that phantom that paralyses them, and keeps them away from all that is beautiful and interesting and real about life.

    I think of how we sacrifice our childish curiosity so easily to phantoms and what this means to our experience of life. Thank you for your writing. It brought back so many beautiful memories for me.

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