Zambezi geezers


A long time ago someone said to me that you should never marry anyone until you’ve been on safari with them. I realize that this piece of life guidance may be of limited value to those for whom heading into the African bush for a long weekend as a premarital precaution is not an option, but it is sound advice nonetheless.

It’s important to know how the person you plan to spend the rest of your life with responds to long, uncomfortable journeys on potholed roads, and to the very real dangers of proximity to large, predatory wild animals. Can they cope with dust and dirt, with the inevitable discomforts of camping, and with the strange intimacy occasioned by knowing what someone is doing when they walk off with a shovel in one hand and a loo roll in the other. And having them know it about you too.

You can learn a lot of useful stuff about a person on safari.

Married now for 27 years (you get less for murder, as my grandfather used to say), I haven’t thought a lot about this advice recently, but then last week we went on a canoe safari on the Lower Zambezi with some friends from the UK whom we had barely seen in ten years, and who were Africa virgins to boot.

The Lower Zambezi is incredibly beautiful: an enormous river dotted with islands and shifting sandbanks beneath a backdrop of wooded hills hazy in the blistering sunlight. It’s also home to great numbers of hippos and crocodiles, and its banks to elephants and other game, which adds a certain frisson to the prospect of spending three days on a heavily-laden canoe on its waters, and three nights camping on its islands.


Our guide was calm and softly spoken and came with a reassuring 20 years of experience on the river. In spite of that, his safety briefing contained advice and instructions that I rather felt might be harder to follow in practice than our sagely nodding heads suggested. It can’t, after all – should a rogue hippo charge your boat and pitch you into the river – be easy to remain totally quiet and to move in a calm manner towards the bank. I can’t help but feel that the urge to scream and flail is instinctive, just as instinct leads the crocodile to the chance of an easy meal.

Judith was openly nervous about the whole thing. Her husband Kevin, an experienced kayaker, had greater confidence on the water, but was equally apprehensive about its occupants. So were we, but off we paddled.


You know that saying about war being 99% boredom and 1% terror? Well, substitute bliss, calm and wonderment for boredom and you’ve pretty well got canoeing on the Zambezi. That 1% terror, however, is not to be sniffed at.

Over the three days we were surprised by many unsuspecting (and unsuspected) hippos exploding from the water with a force and suddenness that made the heart race. They thundered away through their own bow waves, grunting and roaring, leaving us trembling and light-headed in their wake. On several occasions we had to negotiate narrow passages between submerged tree stumps and large pods of hippos, while simultaneously trying to ignore the sight of a four-meter crocodile slipping silently into the water from the bank. At such moments our paddling skills would desert us, and we found ourselves drifting sideways or backwards towards obstacles in the water, hearts pounding and stomachs fluttering.

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The nights brought their own challenges. Judith’s eyes widened as we pitched our tiny tents amongst the elephant footprints on a sandbank. After an early supper and fortifying quantities of wine, we were in bed before 8.30pm every night, to have our sleep interrupted by hyenas, lions, elephants and hippos in varying degrees of proximity. Also by snoring from one another’s tents. Every unzipping for a midnight pee, every walk away to a safe and discreet but not-too-far-away spot in the morning, every revisiting of the unique experience we were sharing over a cup of tea or a cold beer made us more of a team.

It was great. I don’t know what else to say.

Judith and Kevin, I would marry either of you without hesitation.


For the love of lists


You know those lists that magazines and websites publish about the best or worst, or most expensive, or most dangerous or happiest cities in the world? Well I love them.

For a long time I thought they were actually truthful, or meaningful and could be used as the basis of a reasoned discussion on the absolute merits of, say, Singapore over Luanda, but of course they are no such thing. Leaving aside the futility of actually trying to compare cities in such different countries, climates and political systems in any meaningful way, it turns out that most of these surveys are produced to help international companies work out compensation packages for expatriate staff. As a result they often lend great weight to factors that matter not a jot to those who live there, or alternatively overlook completely things that are central to residents’ contentment and pride.

But even knowing this, I can’t stop enjoying them. Part of it is the self-righteous irritation they engender by so frequently contradicting one another. Rival studies seemingly have no qualms about simultaneously proclaiming Zurich, New York and Singapore as the world’s most expensive city, or Vienna and Melbourne as its most liveable.

Recently a study increased both the vaulting ambition and nonsense factor of such research by presenting a list of the world’s best countries to the World Economic Forum at Davos.

It boasted that its conclusions were the result of ranking 24 categories and consulting 16,000 people. Germany came top, with maximum rating for entrepreneurship, and Canada second with a pat on the head for its quality of life and citizenship. Apparently Brazil ranked very highly for adventure. That must be reassuring for Rio’s favela dwellers who can now view their efforts to avoid gun battles between rival drug gangs as adventurous rather than simply frightening.

But I think maybe the main reason I find these lists compelling is their almost total failure to rank anywhere I have ever lived as either the most, or least, anything and I feel – wholly irrationally – slightly wounded by that. It is odd how personally involved one can become with something so obviously unimportant, but Basel and Nairobi and Lusaka and Tauranga never seem to make the top or bottom five in any category. They just bob along somewhere in the ether in between if anyone bothers to look at them at all.

A couple of years ago when I lived in Basel, one study ranked Zurich and Geneva among the top 10 most expensive cities in the world. I was outraged that they hadn’t sampled Basel too. I wanted to be able to curl my lip at my British friends when they grumbled about the cost of living and tell them that they didn’t know how lucky they were, because I lived in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and had the survey to prove it.

So you can imagine my delight when I came across a recent headline that claimed Nairobi ranked in the top 20 most successful cities in the world (and top in Africa) for its innovation, liveability and capacity to reinvent itself. I’m not entirely sure how the company behind the survey – Jones Lang LaSalle – managed to reach this conclusion, but suspect that none of its senior people spent any time on its traffic choked roads, or dealing with its corrupt government officials. And when you think about it, what does ‘capacity to reinvent itself’ actually mean? In the end it just made me sad, thinking of the millions of poor who live in squalor and hopelessness in Nairobi, and of the vast and insulting difference between their lives and those of both the kleptocrats that govern them and the smug compilers of this nonsensical report.

Anyway, last week my attention was drawn to an article in the Wall Street Journal, which looked at the impact of collapsing commodity prices on African economies, and specifically on Zambia. It was desperately sad, chronicling broken dreams and failed businesses, and even suicides among mine workers who had lost their jobs.

But it also contained the nugget that Zambia’s Kwacha, which lost half its value last year, is the world’s second worst performing currency, narrowly conceding the top spot to Belarus’ Rouble.

Maybe it’s best just to bob along somewhere in the middle after all.

Damp conditions



A couple of weeks ago these appeared out of nowhere in my garden.

A little gentle Googling revealed that they are apparently a variety of stinkhorn mushroom, from which those of an etymological bent will deduce that in addition to being distressing on a visual level, they also smell appalling.

In spite of this, one website I looked at advised that the ‘egg’ of some stinkhorns, from which they grow, is apparently edible, though goes on to note thoughtfully that few people choose to take advantage of this.

In Switzerland, where we lived for three years before coming to Zambia, and where they take seasonal food rather more seriously than many places, autumn was heralded by the appearance of a staggering array of mushrooms and pumpkins in shops and street markets. Their wildly varying colours, shapes and flavours helped make months of dark evenings and cold, wet days much more bearable.

Here in Zambia, as everywhere else, mushrooms and other fungi grow when it’s damp, so I should really be welcoming the appearance of these phallic monstrosities, since they have sprung up with the coming of rain. The shallow bit of me (embarrassingly large) that has to walk the dog and hates my hair going frizzy would be perfectly happy for the hot, dry weather that has prevailed since last April to continue. But I’m married to a farmer, and our neighbours include smallholders whose tenuous hold on economic survival is wholly dependent on rain to feed their crops of maize and beans, so in fact I’m just as eager for cloudbursts as anyone.

Although there has been only a feeble amount of rain so far, there are noticeable changes. My morning dog walk takes me past a small and simple house built from concrete blocks, lacking both electricity and glass in the windows. A young Zambian family lives there, with two sweet, saucer-eyed, barefoot boys of maybe two or three years old. Every morning the boys squeal with excitement as I approach as if they have never seen me before, and run towards me waving and shrieking ‘how-are-you-fine-how-are-you-fine’.

For several days after the first storms I missed my morning greeting, as the whole family, together with their neighbours and a large flock of small children, were busy preparing their handkerchief plots of land and planting them with maize. I stood and watched them crouched between the raised beds they’d fashioned with basic tools and much determination, ensuring their precious seeds were bedded in.

The transformation in the vegetation is staggering. Yellowed grass that crackled and stabbed underfoot is now an almost hallucinogenic green, and you can practically hear it growing. Around Christmas time a visiting daughter was walking with me one morning when she stopped and said, ‘Mum, it’s so beautiful.’ I stopped too, and looked. Our fenceline borders rolling, tree-covered hills and golden wheat fields. I realized that I’d stopped noticing how gorgeous it is, walking head down in an effort to avoid termite holes and spot snakes. It IS beautiful. Beautiful in any season, but especially now with a million shades of green in every direction.

Soon, when the ‘real’ rain starts – if indeed it does – the red earth will turn to gloop and the verandah furniture will sprout mould, and our towels will remain damp from one shower to the next. I’ll be sick of dripping trees and muddy clothes and giving up wine for January will be even more of a torture than it already is.

But then apparently stinkhorns like damp rather than properly wet conditions, so they’ll disappear.

There’s usually something to look forward to, if you think hard enough.









Driving lessons

Africa car

I was rummaging in a large and dark cupboard of files yesterday, when a torrent of books and papers fell out at my feet. Among them was the Zambian Highway Code, a small, spiral-bound volume printed in a register so bad that the photographs and illustrations actually hurt your eyes.

Eager as ever for a distraction from what I should in fact have been doing, I began to flick through it, reflecting as I did so on the yawning gap between theory and practice that is perhaps the mark of most government publications, but which is particularly and poignantly apparent in Africa.

You only have to spend a couple of minutes behind the wheel in Lusaka to become aware that laws on not blocking junctions in slow-moving traffic, or always driving in the left lane of a dual carriageway unless overtaking, bear only the most tangential relationship to reality.

Nonetheless, the Highway Code earnestly implores its readers to overtake only when they are sure it is safe to do so, and not to become impatient in traffic jams and swerve into other lanes in an attempt to cut in front of vehicles ahead of them.

Some of its advice, however, does seem more tailored to local conditions. An entreaty to be aware that ‘a group of pedestrians might scatter on first being aware of the approach of a motor vehicle and then, at the last moment cross the road to rejoin those on the other side’ will elicit shrieks of recognition from anyone who has driven in Africa. They’ll smile, too, at instructions not to ‘wander unnecessarily from lane to lane’ or splash other road users as you negotiate potholes in wet weather.

Oddly, the book devotes a large section to the behaviour required of both vehicles and pedestrians at traffic lights. I say oddly because there really aren’t a lot of traffic lights in Zambia, and also because I would estimate that at any given time at least a third of them are out of order.

But this is precisely the sort of situation in which Zambia’s drivers can show their mettle and ability to improvise. Because we are all so used to potholed roads, broken down vehicles and things generally not working quite as they should, we’ve developed ways of keeping traffic moving in situations where drivers in other countries would flounder helplessly.

There is a set of lights at a junction on a route I take regularly, and for several weeks now these lights have been stuck on red in every direction. It’s actually quite inspiring to see how everyone copes with this. There is an almost balletic grace to the way vehicles arc cautiously around one another, a take-it-in-turns rule wordlessly agreed upon by every driver. The traffic flows just as well – perhaps even better – without the lights as with them, and the ‘we’re all in this together’ spirit between disparate and put-upon drivers would bring a lump to the throat of those inclined to a sunny view of humankind.

In fact beyond doubt the greatest impediments to the smooth running of traffic in Lusaka are the traffic police and their roadblocks. These studies in futility spring up randomly, and are invariably manned (or – much worse – womanned) by unsmiling uniformed officers, many grown fat on the perks of the job. These police checks proliferate as Christmas approaches, as Lusaka’s Finest seek ways to augment their meager government salaries with bribes for real or imagined infractions by motorists.

Expat chat forums are alive with stories of those stopped (as I was a few weeks ago) for speeding when they were not, of speed cameras not actually measuring speed but instead stuck permanently at a figure a few kph above the limit, and of police pulling over only those who look most able to pay. It is infuriating. It is the worst kind of petty, everyday corruption that would be so easy to stop with a little political will.

But I confess I have got quite fond of the policeman who is usually at the roadblock closest to our house. He has got to know and recognize me and my car, remembers that all my licences and tax and insurance bits are in order, and that my vehicle is a model of roadworthiness. As a consequence we always greet each other with a smile and he waves me through the check without requiring me to stop. Earlier this year my youngest daughter was out staying with us. In the early flush of enthusiasm that unfailingly follows passing your test, she was eager to drive whenever we went out. As we approached our local police check for the first time with her at the wheel, I could see my traffic-officer friend squinting quizzically at her.

He flagged us down, and I lowered my window. Instantly his face broke into a smile. ‘Madam! You are the one! You can proceed,’ he exclaimed and waved us through with a flourish.

That’s the sort of moment that makes you forgive and forget potholes and corruption, and makes you happy to drive in Zambia.

Reach out for me

Most weeks I try to arrange things so that I am in my car on a Monday morning when the BBC World Service’s Business Daily is on, specifically so I can hear Lucy Kellaway reading her weekly column for the FT.

This is unfailingly good listening for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because of Ms Kellaway’s ability to skewer the nonsense that accompanies so much of business life, while never questioning the fundamental importance of business itself.

One of her pet hates – and mine – is the insidious drivel that is management jargon. For several years now she has awarded annual Golden Flannel Awards to business leaders who use words not to communicate, but to obfuscate, confuse and above all to make bewildered listeners believe they are hearing something clever when they are not. This week, for example, Lucy and others have taken Barclays CEO Jes Staley to task for expressing a wish to unlock shareholder value, rather than simply to make more money.

This stuff isn’t new to most of us. Blessed is the fortunate being who has not endured bum and mind-numbing hours in meetings talking about alignment, helicopter views, value added and scalability. Meetings that end, more often than not, with agreement that some of those present will reach out to others not in the room.

Is there a more absurd and detestable expression? What managers mean when they say they will reach out to someone else is that they will contact them, or maybe talk to them. There is nothing wrong with using these words. They are simple, clear and have the inestimable benefit of having been in use for some time, so are widely understood.

There are, of course, times when it is perfectly legitimate to say reach out, but never in a business context. Reaching out is a physical (or at a metaphorical push, emotional) action that implies either the offering or receiving of comfort, love or reassurance. The Four Tops sang ‘reach out, reach out for me, I’ll be there…’ for a reason. They did not mean ‘contact me and I’ll be there’. Nor, for the same reasons, did Diana Ross urge people to make contact with somebody’s hand to make the world a better place.

But at least such nonsense is confined to the workplace, leaving us in our personal lives to plough the furrow of language that actually communicates meaning.

Or at least I thought so until this week.

I had sent an email to a woman held in the highest regard in her field and someone I am proud and honoured to call a friend. Since it is over a year since we last saw one another and since her daughter and mine have been friends for almost 20 years I filled her in on family news and on the minor joys, stumbles and anxieties therein.

To my delight she replied with an email just as newsy and gossipy, and I read it with a smile on my face until I reached the final paragraph, in which she thanked me for reaching out. I was stopped in my tracks. What could she mean? Why would she say such a thing in a personal communication? It suggests a horrible distance and formality. You don’t reach out to a friend; you contact them; you talk to them.

Since then I have given more thought to that single phrase than it probably deserves. My friend is constantly, frenetically busy and in demand professionally, so perhaps she simply switched into work mode and used the expression from habit as she became aware it was time to finish the email and move on to something more productive.

But what if that isn’t the reason? What if the use of this dreadful expression by this clever, talented, sensitive woman who is in possession of one of the most refined BS-detectors I have ever encountered, marks its passing into ‘civvie’ life?

We need to take a stand. This is the thin end of the wedge. If we accept reaching out then it can only be a matter of time before we are progressing issues as we drive to the supermarket, incentivising our children to do their homework, and delivering solutions over the dinner table.

It’s a fate too horrible to imagine.

Private lives

I read something the other day in which Bill Bryson bemoaned declining standards of public behaviour, based on having seen a woman leave a meager tip in a café when she believed no-one was watching. He contrasted this with the Britain he arrived in 40 years ago, where ‘behaviour was predicated on doing the right thing whether anyone knew about it or not’.

Now I adore Bill Bryson, and frequently find myself shrieking with laughter and whooping with recognition at his writing, but I’m really not sure about this one. For one thing it seems a trifle rich from a man who has boasted in at least one of his books of stealing from hotel mini-bars.

But let’s leave that aside, along with the odious and pitfall-strewn business of tipping, and consider the matter of private vs public behaviour, which I think underlies the point he was making.

There is much hypocrisy and self-righteousness in this sphere of human life. We are generally more enthusiastic about seizing the moral high ground in our pronouncements than applying it in our actions. Everyone professes outrage at the chronic failure over decades of Greeks to pay their taxes, but how many of us can truly say we wouldn’t avail ourselves of the same opportunity if we thought we could get away with it?

And even on less significant matters, can we really be held to public standards of behaviour in private? Do we even know now the difference between public and private in a world where so many are prepared to broadcast intimate details of their lives, feelings and opinions to the world via social media? No hangover too severe, no drunken indiscretion too embarrassing.

It used to be considered bad manners to talk on the phone when in company, since it not only excludes those physically present and makes it clear they are a lower priority for you than the person on the phone, but then heaps insult upon injury by demanding they affect disinterest and deafness until you make yourself available once again. Although I still hate it when someone I am with breaks off to talk on the phone, such sensibilities now sound hopelessly quaint and old-fashioned.

The law in many countries has something to say about what is and is not appropriate public behaviour, but our individual or collective sense of propriety generally dictates what we do and don’t do in public. There are some things we’d really rather not be seen doing. These vary from culture to culture. For example, men stand and pee by the roadside all the time in Africa and no-one bats an eye, but it never fails to give me a jolt when I see someone doing it in Europe.

But I think maybe our sense of the boundaries between private and public behaviour are being eroded and blurred. I don’t know how else to explain a revolting episode on the Tube in London recently, when I heard from further down the carriage an odd but strangely familiar metallic clicking sound. I looked to see what it was and saw a middle aged man clipping his fingernails and letting the parings drop on the floor. I was appalled. It was disgusting, inconsiderate and to me a highly objectionable breach of the line between what is allowable in private and in public. What made him think this was acceptable? What made him see absolutely nothing wrong with inflicting an extra and deeply distasteful task on the cleaners, and an equally distasteful sight on his fellow passengers?

When I was in my teens my mother told me it was bad manners to apply lipstick in public. I wonder what she would have made of a story from a few years ago that highlighted the vanity and grooming standards of Japanese schoolgirls by reporting on a mutiny of commuters when one girl began to shave her legs on the train on her way to school.

It seems that the more connected we are through our phones or other devices, or the more our individuality is crushed by big cities and dehumanizing commutes, the more we create our own bubble, in which we believe our behaviour is our business and ours alone.

But it never is. Unless we are in private.

And that’s where we come back to Mr Bryson’s story, because his nostalgia for a time when courtesy, respect and generosity were our default position really only highlights that, actually, good manners and appropriate public behaviour are about consideration for others. We should exercise that consideration in private with those we love, but for life in our increasingly overcrowded world to be tolerable we need to exercise it in public too.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and give myself a pedicure.

Help yourself

How much help is it reasonable to expect from others?

Of course the answer to that depends wholly on context. Family and friends are likely to help out in a crisis, and simple kindness means we might want to offer assistance to anyone struggling on to a bus with a baby buggy, but it seems to me that there are times and places where it is wholly reasonable to expect help and yet none is forthcoming.

I’m talking here about people whose actual job it is to provide assistance in the form of service, guidance, repair or recompense but who entirely fail to do so.

Now I know that am marching on into an increasingly irritable middle age, so I accept that I may be experiencing the unfortunate confluence of rising expectations and declining patience that is the hallmark of a Grumpy Old Woman. Nonetheless, a glance back over the past few weeks of the call centre queue that is my life throws up a dispiriting array of occasions when, shall we say, expectations have not been met.

From Amazon to Zambian Internet service providers, via British Airways, Uber and others, I’ve had a bellyful of case reference numbers, specified delivery times that pass with no delivery, and a tinny eternity of the Flower Duet on hold. I’m driven to rage by chirpy recorded messages asking me (rhetorically) whether I know that almost every problem known to man – climate change, the refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic extremism – can surely be solved by visiting their website. Thanks, but I’ve tried that already. That’s why I’m calling. And what is the whole customer-service-line-that-gives-you-absolutely-no-chance-of speaking-to-a-human thing about? (I’m talking to you, Vodafone) And the ones whose ‘Contact Us’ page is nothing more than a way of trapping you in an endless Escher-esque loop back to their FAQs, which of course don’t answer your particular Q, since perhaps it is not A very F, otherwise YOU WOULDN’T BE PUTTING YOURSELF THROUGH THE PAIN OF MAKING THIS PHONE CALL IN THE FIRST PLACE.

I had to go to Ikea recently to buy stuff for a daughter going to university. We’re pretty good at the whole Ikea thing now, and have totally nailed the shortcuts that avoid you having to traipse through the whole ghastly sausage machine behind two fat women and their army of kids moving at the pace of an asthmatic snail. Thus it was that we arrived in the lighting department with rather smug alacrity, selected a desk lamp, doubled back briefly into textiles to buy a rug, paused on the way through the market place for the obligatory bag of tea lights without which no visit to Ikea is complete, and made for the tills.

Of course I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

Unpacking in her hall of residence a few days later we discovered that when switched on, the desk lamp gave out a hallucinatory pulsing beam, reminiscent of a rave in a small town club rather than the calming pool of light in which I had fondly imagined my daughter engaged in quiet and diligent study. Dozens of miles from an Ikea, and (naturally) without my till receipt, I called their customer service line.

The best thing – what am I saying? the ONLY good thing – about the Ikea customer service line is that they play Abba while you are on hold. This all but demands you join in with a singalong to Waterloo, which can cause a certain amount of embarrassment and confusion when a person actually comes on the line. Recovering my dignity I explained my predicament and was told, as I knew I would be, that I must go to a store.

The next day I did so, making straight for the Returns and Exchanges desk, where I explained the issue. The assistant looked nonplussed, so I suggested that perhaps she could plug the lamp in and switch it on in order to see the problem for herself.

She said, “Well, I’ll have to see whether there’s anyone in the store today who’s got the authority to do that.”

I am rarely lost for words, but I have to say that she had me there. I mean, there we were, in a developed country in one of the world’s most successful retailers where all around us staff members were tapping on sophisticated electronic devices, and yet she was suggesting that plugging in a lamp was outside their skill set or authority.

Fortunately, at this juncture another yellow-shirted employee happened by. Perhaps his attention was caught by the sight of a middle-aged woman tearing her hair and rending her garments but, whatever, happily he stopped and took the matter in hand. With the sort of assurance that comes from knowing his way around any flat pack assembly instructions you could throw at him, he took my lamp, moved two meters to his left, and plugged it in. It flickered in the same unpleasant, epilepsy-inducing way that it had the day before.

In no time he had authorized a voucher for its exchange and in just a little longer I was on my way. Job done.

We are so accustomed now to staff who manage to imply that the problem is somehow your own fault, or who are so miserably ill-informed about their own products and services that you must be bounced from department to department and answer the same security questions over and over again, that good customer service is rare enough to be truly memorable.

I was reminded sharply of this when I went into a branch of Sports Direct to buy some trainers. Sports Direct is a British retailer known for its cavernous stores and the overstuffed mess of bright nylon and branded hoodies that fill them. I went only because trainers are cheaper there than elsewhere, but it’s a heavy price to pay. Previous visits had yielded rudeness and only the most reluctant show of help from the spotty and callow youths that work there.

Well that’ll learn me.

The young man who came forward, unbidden, to offer assistance turned out to be charming, helpful and extremely knowledgeable about sports footwear. In no time at all he had me sorted with exactly what I needed. I was so surprised and delighted that had he suggested it, it is perfectly possible I would have left with a full Manchester City strip as well.

The warm glow from this transaction hasn’t faded yet and the next time any of us need anything made of lycra or with air cushioning, I know where I’ll go. Vodafone and others, you could learn a lot from the young man in the women’s shoe department at Fosse Park. Maybe you should pop in.