It took me seven days to figure out what was different. How Lusaka had morphed into a new city. It’s the tree canopy that used to shade the roads, so even if there were no sidewalks, just dusty paths along pock-marked pavement, walking was a shaded venture. Joni Mitchell keeps surfacing. When the roads were refinished, they were widened, too, and the trees along the edges, whose roots were to blame for cracking the tarmac, are gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
This isn’t really a vacation, my 15 year old son observed, five days into our visit to Lusaka, where an El Nino-fueled drought and heat wave were paired with 20-hour power cuts every day.
No shit! I responded, skipping over the observation that scarcity had brought out unprecedented acts of cooperation and bonding for our family of four.
The refrigerator gives up on the idea of cold by about 11 a.m. There used to be a generator, until something blew on the road outside the house, which is being dug up and re-laid. The water only runs when the smaller replacement generator is on, which means diesel fuel exhaust blows into the house. What you need is a fan, but there’s no electricity to run it. Or ice in your drink, but it’s melting in the fridge. You have to go to the grocery store every day, because meat and milk won’t keep, but the roads are being redone, and traffic is at a stand-still. We are staying half a kilometer from the grocery store, but you can’t get there from here. Two-ton trucks pour tar, sending up plumes of dust as they barrel by. The well-meaning but utterly disorganized contractors who are redoing Great East Road have made a make-shift roundabout, manned by four men with whistles, who are trying to manually direct one of the most congested intersections in the city. Several times I have taken ill-fated ‘shortcuts’ to try to circumvent what feels like the longest five-minute stretch on earth, only to end up enveloped by diesel and tar as I trudge up the hill, frowning again at what’s happening to a place that has, in my mind, been a retreat from the industrialized world.
This is what climate change looks like in a country where the President lines his pockets with profits from the state-run utility. Start with the idea that on the road where a Minister lives, there are no power cuts. Everywhere else, power is only turned on at night, while we are sleeping and not running our ovens or washing machines –– until we get desperate and start baking Christmas cookies at midnight. The American government offered to intervene, but the President refused; that would require transparency, no more helping himself to the utility’s cash.
The Zambia I want is the bucolic one. Where you walk on streets cooled by rains, stepping over the furry caterpillars, to the back of a church where farmers sell their lettuces, and gooseberries. It is rainy season, but there’s no rain. The Guardian says it’s the worst drought in 100 years. The Kariba fishermen say 30. I say, it’s especially hot when there’s no power to run the fans.
My Zambian husband: What do you need power for, anyway?
Me, the American who does not weather power shortages well: Can’t think of a thing.
Later, he says: I don’t hear generators. The power must have come back on.
Me: No. They’ve just given up.
I arrived in this city 20 years ago with a job at the American School and after walking its orange-earth hills and dancing at the only club in town, announced I would never leave. (I left; but not before marrying a man who would continue to bring me back.) As we drive around on unrecognizable roads with their new, souped-up walls, I have only good memories of its various corners.
Meeting with an editor in a garden coffee shop to talk about serializing my first novel.
The rainy walk up Independence Avenue with my best friend to a bagel shop, where we walked in, and the woman behind the counter greeted her with: Seriously, Chileshe!
Traveling with a 15-member baby group up north for an hour to eat grilled boerwors and chase our kids around a playground with wooden airplane see-saws.
The only thing worse than a mzungu with a white savior complex is someone like me, who wants to deny a sub-Saharan city entrée into the world of strip malls and asphalt for reasons that have more to do with aesthetics and petty nostalgia than development economics.
(As I write this, a dump truck in the neighboring plot is groaning under its load of dirt and cement, punctuating each word with a backing-up truck beep.)
On the one hand, there are the shiny new facades. The remains of 1970s structures have been demolished for multi-story office parks that pulls the city-scape out of human scale. Someone has let Sunshare, a Chinese construction company, to blast their name in neon high above Roma, and dominate the night sky. The security walls that used to expose their cement seams are now stylish, beige, with bas-relief design.
The strip malls that there used to be are expanding and the places where there weren’t malls—the boom on the top of Leopard’s Hill––are now sprouting them like acne on a teenager. In clumps, in raw, red rashes. Full of Zambians with money to spend. Even Kalinga-linga, where the one road in was impassable during rainy season, is launching a mall.
Ten years ago, I lived without a generator or an inverter; never had a fridge full of food go off. Now it’s a punishing regime of 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., day after day. The bakeries are closing (already closed!) because to run an oven on a diesel-fueled generator means bread costs more than anyone will pay for it.
Kvetching is not in order. We are the lucky ones. The house where we live has a small generator that runs the water pump and fridge. We use it judiciously. On for showers then off again. On when the laptop dies, or a few hours at night.
The situation is one to be escaped. Our friends who spent Christmas here two years ago have all gone somewhere else. Places with less elaborate facades, like Zanzibar, but more electricity. The Lusaka ratio in reverse. Families who might have visited for the holiday were one step ahead of us. Not now. No way.
Where do we get good bread? We ask, only to be told that the bakeries can’t run anymore. They require too much power.
In Lusaka you become so patient that you approach a zombie kind of zen. You have no choice. Fighting it is a waste of hot energy you don’t want to expend. You let the hot hours pass until evening.
All this vacation hardship brings out the protective instinct in my husband, who makes sure there is back up fuel to run the generator and cooks us elaborate breakfasts on the two-burner gas stove with bacon, mushrooms, potatoes, eggs, and cheddar.
My son helps my daughter attach her mosquito net to a curtain pole and borrows two hairclips from me so that the net doesn’t slip off her toes. My husband plays Marco Polo in the pool at night, a game he hasn’t taken part in ten years, if ever. I wake up at sunrise to wash sweaty clothes before the power is shut off.
On December 25th, my husband made himself a cup of tea at 9 am, with the electric kettle.
Guess what Zesco gave us for Christmas?
He smiles. It is the kind of condescending present that reminds you who’s in charge, and how poorly they are managing their power.
BIO: Tej Rae is a freelance writer currently based in Rome, working on her third novel. After teaching high school English for 15 years, she transitioned to journalism and fiction. Her publishing credits include The Washington Post, BBC Focus on Africa magazine, The National newspaper in UAE, YogaLife Middle East, The Wheelhouse Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Eunoia Review, Romeing, Spittoon, and Fiction365, among others. Writing courses at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, Bard College Summer Institute, NY, and at George Mason University, VA, have contributed to her growth as a writer, in addition to online classes with Grub Street in Boston and The Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing. Tej has two teenage children and travels with her work for the United Nations. Since 1999, she has lived in Zambia, Senegal, Dubai, Rome, and Ethiopia as of August 2019. In all of these places, she has formed and led writing groups. In Senegal, she helped establish Africa’s first children’s museum, ImagiNation Afrika, which is still thriving. Many of her publications can be found on http://tejrae.com
(NOTE: Tej is our submissions editor, always reading blind. I also check the portal and read the submissions and accepted this piece without knowing it was hers until later. Sarah.)
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