The Thick of It

Another repost of something I wrote for the official team blog while in Zambia. The original can be found here.

The meeting probably wasn’t an important one anyway.

So when a clamour of shouts and car horns began to rattle the windows of our office, and everyone visible through the office door rushed to the street, it maybe didn’t matter that we all abandoned what we were doing to follow. Not that we could’ve talked to each other over the racket even if we’d wanted to.

Outside was a convoy of red and green painted pickup trucks blocking the road. The shouts were coming from the crowds of people flocking to see what was happening, just as we were, all competing for volume against a man standing atop one of the trucks yelling exhortations into a megaphone. The drivers of the trucks were leaning on their horns, adding random, offbeat blares to the cacophony.

People were streaming from every building on the main road and surrounding the trucks, but a gap in the crowds let us see a flash of a slogan written on one of the doors. A couple of ominous looking men, burly, wearing camouflage trousers and red berets, got out of the trucks and clambered up on top. People pressed around them, throngs of hands clawing at the air, as the men began to pass items into the crowd. All that we could see of most people were their hands, straining upwards. They were snatching and tearing at whatever was being passed down.

As the noise grew, more and more people appeared and crushed inwards, throwing their hands up in unison. The only time anyone lowered their hands was briefly, to yank or slap at a competitor and steal a momentary advantage.

A couple of people were spat from the maelstrom, holding their prizes aloft and grinning gleefully, letting us finally see what it was that was being passed out. They were bearing chitenges, lengths of cloth that Zambian women wear like a dress, coloured the same red and green as the trucks and with a sternly disapproving black and white photo of a man in the centre. Some wrapped them around their waists, others threw them over their shoulders, tied them around their heads or their waists.

The UK volunteers were dumbfounded until the Zambian team leader spelled out for us exactly what we were standing gawping at and what all the Bemba being shouted meant.

The face plastered on the back of the trucks was the Vice-President of the UDNP, Zambia’s political opposition, and he was apparently in the lead vehicle. Elections in Zambia are being held in 2016, and the man in question has presidential ambitions.  One of his supporters came over to the handful of clueless muzongu (local lingo for “white person”) clustered outside our office and told us that they were planning to drive to a local town to make an appearance and drive back. He encouraged us to go and get involved, to grab a souvenir.

Our team leaders had to explain that official VSO policy was not to get involved in political events. Even taking a free chitenge might give the impression that VSO support a particular stance, which creates problems for maintaining the goodwill and backing of the whole community. So we stood and watched and didn’t take pictures, just in case.

The horde of people continued to throng, swirling and shifting as new arrivals forced their way in while those who had their chitenges struggled free. Hands still reached, stretching for the chance of some free material. The shouting and car horns were unabated, and the man with the loudhailer was as strident as ever in his sloganeering.

And then, as abruptly as it began, it was over. The men jumped off the back of the trucks and clambered back inside. Horns droned in unison and engines revved, scattering people from the road. The cavalcade crawled away.

Then it stopped a hundred metres up the street. The same men jumped out, and another wave of people streamed from the houses and shops to try their luck.

The UK volunteers knew beforehand that Zambia would be different in a lot of ways. Training on what to expect prepared everyone for pit latrines, power cuts, and endless nshima. We knew that Samfya was chosen for the project, among other things, because of the poverty of its residents.

We knew that one of the main aims of the ICS programme is to empower young people, enabling them to take control of their own lives through knowledge and education. People with knowledge can act to create long term change in their communities.

The mass of people was dispersing now that the trucks had gone. We managed to persuade one of the happy, satisfied crowd to show us the chitenge he’d snagged. It was thin, cheap polyester and looked like it’d take very little effort to tear.

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