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Friday 9 December 2011

Hello Europe

I languish in bed at 4:11 GMT realising that right now, in my beautiful, warm, friendly, wonderful Chikuni, the sun is already an hour above the horizon. Kids are playing, birds are chirping and building homes, girls are sweeping the red earth and oxen are straining against their yokes and owners as they plough mile after mile of bush. I’m no longer physically in the middle of nowhere, instead I’m very much in the middle of somewhere (Wimbledon, London) but now my heart is in the middle of nowhere until I get that first, all important hug from the first of my friends. I sit, shivering, with the realisation that daylight is still three or four hours away and even at that, it’s a grey dull sunlight, filtering through the rain and cloud that I flew down through last night.

So here I am, arrived safely in London. I have many wonderful reunions ahead of me before the next hop to Cork in Ireland. Now I just have to try and readjust to Western society and not have a nervous breakdown in the process. When I'm thinking clearly I'll write more here about some of my reflections about the adventure that has been Zambian Madness. Until then...

Your reporter back in the London Town

Wednesday 30 November 2011

The Desert of Silence

A well dressed young man waiting with me in Kitwe for the busSitting in the (uncomfortable) front seat of the bus, I am suddenly very glad that I have just spent eight days working on my relationship with Jesus. I watch with a mixture of comedy and anxiety as the guy who passes for the bus conductor starts to winch the front door of the bus shut using a once tan coloured strap and an also broken winch. The sadomasochist in me (the guy who thought it was a spectacularly good idea to jump off a platform 130m above the Zambezi) smiles with glee at the prospect of an ‘exciting’ journey from the capital, Lusaka, back home to Chikuni; the diminutive, sensible part of me starts berating me for not getting the decent bus. Silently I start to pray to just about everyone I can think of who relates to my current situation, St. Christopher (patron of travellers), St. Patrick (patron of the Irish), Jesus, Mary and my ever present and perilously overworked guardian angel.

I found myself in the capital because I was returning from Kitwe, a town in the Copperbelt which is in the north of Zambia. Kitwe is about 30 kilometres away from the Congolese border (in the East) and is right in the middle of all the mining action in Zambia. I was there because I’ve just completed a spiritual retreat in silence. Who knew that eight days of silence would involve so much (damn) silence? Not me anyway! I’ll keep personal insights for when I see people, especially given the propensity of my friends/readers towards atheism or agnosticism but it was an interesting experience and something worthwhile from far more than a spiritual aspect.

A little piece of my home for the week in KitweKitwe is a very interesting town. The whole region has seen much more investment over the decades because of the mines, much more than lots of other parts of Zambia. There’s a fair amount of wealth and while not huge, it’s obviously sizeable compared to my dinky Chikuni. I really liked seeing the smelted copper being hauled away for transport from South Africa (I guess) and there was a huge black heap of apparently still-rich copper slag. There are electricity pylons everywhere to service the two/three mines dotted around the town. And while I was waiting for the bus to bring me back to Lusaka (for an unenviable two and a half hours) I discovered that Pemba women are hot! See, every cloud has a silver lining…

I returned to Chikuni (eventually) and now have but a short week left before all hell breaks lose and London Town welcomes me back with icy-cold, unsmiling and mango-free arms. Can you tell that I’m not ready to leave yet?

Your reporter in the middle of nowhere

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Thank you Photobox

My manager thinks photobox rocks!A special shout out to photobox who I’ve been using for a long time to produce dead-tree versions of my photographs. I've taken a fair few photographs of people over my time here and I wanted to get some produced on paper so that I could give them to the people who've been kind enough to let me photograph them. I recently appealed to photobox's good nature and they responded very kindly. Thanks! They also provided great customer service after the Italian postal service spent too much time drinking coffee and not enough time delivering my photos on time to make the connection to me here in Zambia. If you need photographs, I’d recommend them as their stuff is very good value, high quality, there’s often good special offers (like 50% off everything recently) and their support is top notch.

Rain (again)!

Sunset during my latest and sadly, last, camping tripI woke with as start as the room reverberated with the sound of thunder. My eyes closed again sleepily but even so I ‘saw’ the lightening through my closed eyelids seconds later. The rains had arrived with full on force. I sat up and yawned as again, my room is lit up as a huge streak of lightening sizzled down from the heavens. I checked my phone, 2:15 in the morning, arse!

I love a good lightening storm. All that power, noise and light created out of nothingness by nature. So I sat in bed and watched through the mosquito net as the lightening exploded out of the darkness time and again, counting the seconds between lightening and thunder to discover how far away the storm was. I love it when you see a really big bolt of lightening and you know the thunder that is ‘slowly’ making it’s way towards you is going to be immense. And then it hits, the walls shake, the dogs whimper and you feel utterly alive.

This morning, long after the storm had passed, the scene was serene. As I sat outside and had breakfast, nature seemed to be fully alive, as if refreshed by the night’s storm. Birds were delirious, singing, chirping, larking about and generally having a good time. Frogs, crickets and a host of other noisy creatures were all making a racket and the smell of soil starting to breath for the first time in months was heady in the air.

Tamara working itThe rains are late this year compared to last year. Sixteen days to be exact and everyone suffered in the (lovely) heat that I will always associate with Africa. Living in high thirty degree heat while Europe shivers its way into winter brings pure joy to me as I sit smugly sweating my brains out, in blissful self-denial about what I will return to in three weeks. Now the real business of Chikuni, cultivating maize, will start. Everywhere, ox drawn ploughs will start moving up and down fields from predawn to dusk. Families will follow behind, sowing maize seed in the ploughs wake. What was brush and scrub land will suddenly be transformed into farmland as each family tries to grow as much as they can manage, and maybe even a bit more than that. I just hope I get to have some roasted green maize before I go back now (not likely).

Saturday 5 November 2011

The Silence In-Between

Sunrise at the Chikuni damSometimes in my life, I have felt like there has been so much that has gone unsaid. So much empty space that words, important words, should have existed to occupy the silence and yet they did not flow. For much of my life I was something of an introvert (and still am despite peoples protests) and I had very little to say to the world, I was too preoccupied with my own suffering and didn’t have the tools to open up and share my pain with a world that also suffers. Perhaps this is why I have always liked music, it fills this space and keeps me from thinking too much. But sometimes the distractions get in the way and I let moments go past.

With an ex-girlfriend of mine, we always had something to talk about. There were silences but never any uncomfortable silences. And yet, we never talked about the important stuff, the white elephant(s) in the corner of the room that lived with us for over a year. I was a very different person then, still a boy in a way, still that teenager unable to deal with the emotions bubbling just underneath my happy-go-lucky smile. Only sometimes, if the moment were right, would you see it in my eyes, a very sad little boy trying desperately to escape.

Then things changed, that girl and I broke up and afterwards I finally managed to find a way to start opening up. To try and fix me, if you like (actually it was more like forgiving myself). And it worked; I started opening up, I started dealing with all the confusion I had stored up over the previous 15 years and it felt fantastic to air out those skeletons. Since then, I have continued to be vigilant about saying what I feel is important or at least trying.

A quiet little girlSo it was interesting to think recently that it is often the conversation that goes unsaid that is the most fascinating thing to talk about. In particular, I am thinking of questions I have for people. When I ask a question, I am generally interested in the answer. I weigh up the importance of this question and the information contained within the answer against the possible (negative) impact on the person answering. I superimpose my psyche on the other person, add some (Catholic) guilt for flavour and then decide whether or not somebody asking me the same question would upset me. Then regardless of the answer I air on the cautious side and decide not to ask… I do of course realise that I should just let the other person decide whether or not they want to answer the question but I don’t know… asking the question will result in the person thinking about the answer and this could cause as much upset as telling me the answer. Then again, perhaps it’s important to remind people of the things that we don’t really want to think about.

This is just one of the many thoughts I’ve had the time to explore during my time here and to look back and laugh or tutt at my own inability to open up sometimes and say what needs to be said or to what I’d like to say. You may find all this boring but it’s a truth that I think applies to many people, especially the characters of “One Day” which is what I just happen to be reading at the moment (thanks cuz!!).

Your reporter in the middle of nowhere

Wednesday 26 October 2011


The main entrance to Chikuni MissionStrange things are happening in Chikuni. There’s rumours and talk. Talk of spirits and strange goings-on. On a hill known locally as Singonya Hill. People saw fire on top of the hill at various times during the night on the weekend before last. This talk has reached the very edges of the parish, including Michelo over forty-five kilometres away. Nobody knows what was happening but people are curious and like to talk about such things. The rumours have even reached me, but there’s probably a reason for that…

At some point between midnight and three am I hear a man, down in the valley signing a ‘happy’ little ditty and later on I hear women singing a lonesome haunting song to the beat of a drum. People all around me are asleep and the night is cool despite the hot days now. I feel very happy having thought of, planned and am now in the middle of executing, a very fine adventure. You see, during the Sunday of my snake-tastic weekend I went for a picnic to a nearby hill. While there I thought that it would be a splendid place to spend a night and I thought the best time would be when the full moon was there. So a plan formed and I decided that the October full moon was the best as November is rain season and nobody likes camping in the rain (unless you’re a freak; yes like the thousands of people who go to waterlogged British music festivals).

The rest of the adventure went something like this… We set off late on Friday evening and by the time we made it to the bottom of the hill the sun was already setting in a blaze of red in the West. Chobe wildlifeI raced ahead to the top to set up camp and made it just as the last of the light was fading. Kebby, Dr. Sam and his two boys arrived about ten minutes later to a swept camp area and a fire. Sam brought a tent and he set that up while I fumbled around in the darkness for more firewood. We had dinner that I had prepared in the afternoon (rice and extra yummy BBQ'ed chicken) followed by delicious yogurt cake made by Dr. Sam's wife. After everyone was 'full' I broke out the marshmallows and suddenly everyone could manage to eat just a little bit more. Strange that! I'd forgotten how ridiculously lush toasted marshmallows are. Soon my teeth where whaling in pain and so, you know, I just had a few more. Somewhere during cake, the moon arrived. It was bright red because of the angle of the sun relative to the moon I assume. It rose higher and higher and changed from red to orange to yellow to its familiar cream. After washing their teeth the two boys went to bed leaving me, Sam and Kebby to enjoy the fire.

With the moon up and it's brightness in full effect I went off on another expedition to find enough firewood to get us through the night. When I came back dragging branches behind me, I stoked the fire with the fresh lumber and we settled down for the night. No sooner had Kebby said the immortal words, “I'm not going to sleep tonight”, than he was fast asleep. I laughed quietly to myself. I too managed to sleep though it was quite fitful. At some point around midnight, Kebby told me the fire had burnt down. I said something like "that's nice" and rolled over to continue sleeping. Then I felt a nudge and Kebby repeated his statement. My sleep-soaked brain then registered that this was my queue to add more firewood. So I got up and moved the branches and tree trunk closer to the fire and soon there was a raging fire again. I seemed to add a lot because soon the fire was raging, about 1 meter into the sky. Kebby was soon fast asleep again and once the fire died down a bit and there was limited risk of us burning to death, I too drift back to slaying dragons, winning the lottery and Jessica Alba. Sometime after 3am the wind picked up and it got cold so once again I added more wood. Later still, a spider decided to try and climb my hand but I jerked with the sensation and all I saw was it making a hasty retreat towards the luminescent darkness. I slept on and off until 5, adding firewood as required when I started to feel cold.

Dawn The camping possewas amazing! I climbed a tree to get a better view and was blown away yet again by the beauty of this world. After breakfast and clearing up we went to explore another dam and then headed for home. I think we got back to Chikuni around 9:30 in the blazing heat.

So it would seem your reporter is causing much talk amongst the villages. I had to laugh when Fr. Andrew told me about it just two days after the event, having celebrated mass on the Sunday in Michelo and being asked if he knew anything about the activities on Singonya Hill. People looked at me very strangely as I set off with full backpack on Friday complete with axe strapped to the outside. Strange mukuwa I’m sure they thought to themselves and voiced to their friends and neighbours. I’m used to it by now though and don’t mind.

Your camper in the middle of nowhere

Thursday 20 October 2011

My New Roomie

A cute flowerThe room is dark, lit only by the outside lights. Inception is playing on my laptop for the umpteenth time and the remnants of a bowl of popcorn sit next to me. It’s been a long day and I’m tired. It’s also hot but the ubiquitous mosquitoes mean I’m in jeans and long sleeved T. Suddenly my attention is jerked away from Leonardo DeCaprio and is focused solely on the new arrival, Timmy. I saw Timmy arrive out of the corner of my eye but he’s hard to see in this light. So I decide to get up and turn on the light so that we can get properly acquainted. Timmy doesn’t seem to mind the light and continues to stand next to the coffee table. I have to get closer for a better look. Timmy is without doubt, the ugliest, hairiest and biggest damn spider I have ever met! Timmy the tarantula has way too many eyes and it’s got fangs for heavens sake. Fangs I tell you!! There’s only one thing for it, Timmy’s got to die!

At this stage of my life in Africa I’m used to uninvited guests. You get kind of used to it after a year involving snakes, spiders, bees, cockroaches, scorpions, frogs, giant arm-nibbling rats and heaven knows what else in and around the house. But come on, this thing is just ridiculous. I just stare at it in awe and unadulterated terror until I remember, it’s got to die…

Now as is the way, I just happened to have a wooden chopping board next to me; just the thing for squashing the world biggest, ugliest and deadliest (in my imagination anyway) Irishman eating spider in the world. So I pick up the board and tentatively move it into place over Timmy’s head, like a guillotine being raised in readiness for execution. I open my hands and the board falls. Timmy jumps out of the way and the neighbours hear a hysterical teenage girl screaming in the vicinity of my house. Timmy can jump! I’m perched on top of the chair wondering how I’m going to retrieve the stupid chopping board without losing a hand. I gingerly move the leg of the table towards Timmy and coax him back towards the direction he came from. He gets the hint and saunters across to the leg of the chair adjacent to mine. I reach for the board with all of my attention fixed squarely on Timmys legs. One jerk from any of his EIGHT gargantuan legs and I’m out of here faster than the Road Runner, be-beep. I feel for the board, clasp it and tear my hand back. Now I need to persuade Timmy out into the open and try again. I move the leg of the adjacent chair and he walks out a couple of centimetres. Again I lift the board, again I hold my breath, again the board falls and again Timmy escapes out from under the board. I’m beginning to hear him laughing at me and cackling “You think a puny little chopping board (weighing 700g) can harm me? Wahahahahahahaaaaaa” A not so cute spiderIn reality Timmy decides that it’s all a bit hectic out here in the open and retreats back to under the far couch where I can only assume he came from. I abandon the useless chopping board and get the axe. No, actually I get the biggest saucepan I can find. If I can’t kill it then I’ll trap it. So I brave the floor (after clambering over chairs for as long as possible and enter the kitchen, keeping an eye on the last known whereabouts of Timmy. I emerge, saucepan in hand and (mock) bravery in my heart. I inch towards the couch, heart pounding in ears, adrenaline thumping through my veins and Leo long forgotten. But Timmy’s disappeared. Oh, of course Timmy has disappeared. I bet he hasn’t gone far though, certainly not far enough!

And so Timmy vanished, “like a fart in the wind”. I couldn’t see him under the couch, he wasn’t around the curtains and my torch light couldn’t locate him. He’s gone to live on in folklore, pub stories and my nightmares while I was left to return to Leo though I spent most of the rest of the film and night for that matter in (understandable) paranoia. The following morning I checked all around the area for him but still nothing. So we will live on in harmony until he appears and scares the bejesus out of me again. I’m kind of glad though because I don’t like killing things (with the exception of mosquitoes and cockroaches) even when they’re trying to turn my habitat into theirs. It turns out Timmy is a jumping spider. You can get full details on the family here and see lots of shiver-inducing photos of the species here. Of course it’s totally harmless but just you try telling yourself that when you’re looking at the ugliest, hairiest and biggest damn spider you’ve ever seen.

Your failed spider assassin in the middle of nowhere

(Image credits: Opo Terser via: villageofjoy.com )