Published: June 14th 2010June 14th 2010
8 to 12 June - Lusaka to Kawamba
Tuesday 8 June - today I got my first taste of Zambian time keeping, and let me tell you - I quickly learnt a valuable lesson - I needed to learn some patience and to relax into the Zambian vibe, pronto. I was told on short notice to be at the UNHCR office in Lusaka at 8am as there was a spare seat in a UN vehicle bound for the Kawambwa office (my new posting). It is an 11 hour drive, so I naturally assumed we would be arriving at our destination at around 8pm that evening. First mistake.
So, as instructed, I made sure I was there at 7.45am sharp, new UNHCR photo ID in hand (see pictures), bag packed and ready to hit the road. I had no idea what to expect, who I was travelling with, or where I would be staying when we got to Kawambwa. It is fair to say I was a tad on the anxious side.
First, the driver needed to get fuel, so we were delayed. Next I was told I needed to go and get some passport photos for my visa,
meaning a further delay. Of course, the photo place was on the other side of town, and it ended up taking two hours just to get a few passport photos. After that, the three of us then piled in the car, ready to finally depart (I was happy there were only 3 of us, as it meant I had the back seat to myself for the drive = sweet!). Another quick lesson in the Zambian vibe was then learnt - never assume, fool. Another delay, as we had to pick up another person first, from the other side of Lusaka. Once we picked up Taban (a man from Uganda who works at the UNHCR office in Kawambwa and would later turn out to be my new housemate), it was already 11am, and I was not looking forward to the drive ahead. But the delays were not done with me yet. We then had to go and pick up our final passenger, Sirac, a man from Eritrea. He was coming with us to surprise his wife and son, who lived in Kawambwa. After picking up Sirac, we then had to go to a special bakery to get some Eritrean bread, called
Injera (it was worth it though - that stuff is delicious).
We finally ended up leaving Lusaka at 1pm. By that time I had learnt what I think will be one of the more important lessons that I will need here - I had to do away with any impatience and just forget about having expectations as to the time things would or should take. Once on the road, it was Taban, Sirac and I squashed into the back seat of a UNHCR Toyota (see photos), no air-con, and the sun blazing. Whilst it is winter here, it is still 28 degrees in the day time, and the sun is strong as hell. My hope that we might drive through some national park (and therefore maybe see some animals) was not materialising, as the country was basically just farming and constant villages at the roadside. Nothing really to photograph. After a few hours we stopped at a servo and Taban took me to a food place that had the most amazing Chicken Shawarma rolls, wow! After climbing back in the car, I was sitting there, squashed on one edge of the seat, sweating it up, garlic breath from the
Shawarma raging, and I thought to myself - I’m, glad both of these blokes seem like decent guys, else it was going to be a mighty awkward trip!
As the sun set and the Zambian countryside whizzed by, Taban told me that the UN policy was that we cannot drive at night, so we would be spending the night in a town called Ndolo. We ended up staying at a guesthouse that had cement for beds and a trickling tap for a shower, not that I was complaining - I was buggered and slept like a log. The following day we left Ndolo. We had planned to leave at 8am, but ended up leaving at 11am (standard!). Ndolo is in copper belt country in Zambia - where all the big copper mines are. Sections of the town were just empty factories, as the decreasing price of copper and the closure of some of the mines had had a devastating impact on the town. It was a terrible sight, in a country with 26% unemployment.
After leaving Ndolo, the drive got interesting. The potholes starting coming thick and fast - and our driver decided to adopt the old ‘if
I drive 140k, I will just skip over the top of the potholes’ tactic. Needless to say it didn’t work out that way, and in the process I was genuine fear for our lives. Unfortunately, the driver maintained that tactic continually, even when we had to drive on 80km of dirt. Most of the time I just closed my eyes and hoped he knew what he was doing. Oh yeah, he also decided to take a short-cut through the Congo, which ended up being fine, but caused me some slight anxiety at the time (particularly trying to pass through the border whilst being interrogated by armed border guards who probably are not used to white red heads passing through).
We eventually got to Kawambwa at 8pm that night, upon which I found out where I would be living - in a two bedroom house with Taban. The house is good - constant electricity, TV, microwave, fridge, comfortable bed. Downside is no hot water and no shower (just a bath), but with is being so warm, it really hasn’t been a problem.
During the drive I learned that Sirac also worked at the UN, that he had left Eritrea
a few years ago, after the newspaper he worked for was closed down. Apparently the government are not really into the whole ‘free and independent media’ thing over there. They also have compulsory national army service for young people there, and there is no limit as to how long the government might want to keep you in the army. As Eritrea has only been independent from Ethiopia for 20 years (having fought a 30 year war for their independence) the government obviously is keen to maintain a large army. All that added up to Sirac getting a job with the UN and leaving. He is a lovely man, extremely friendly, and he has a beautiful young family. It is a pity he is based in Lusaka, and not here where I am. Taban is from Uganda, and he has been working for UNHCR here for 8 years, so he knows the place well. He has been extremely welcoming, driving me around to buy food, cooking for me, and making sure all is ok. I have really lucked in on that side of things - it would have really been a lonely time if I was in a house by myself.
My working hours at UNHCR are 8am to 5pm, with Friday being a half day (we finish at 1.30pm). Every morning I wake at 6.30am and open my window, to the sound of women walking past, carrying baskets on their heads, singing as they walk by. It really is an amazing way to wake up, to just lay there and listen to it. I have spent most of this week doing the online training and induction, and planning my work for next week. Our office is responsible for the 5000 refugees left in the Kala camp, all of whom are from DRC (Congo). 18,000 refugees from that camp returned to DRC last year, as a part of the voluntary repatriation program run by our office. Because governments have determined that DRC is now relatively safe (particularly Katanga province where there refugees are from) - the only options for the refugees left in Zambia is to return voluntarily, or remain in Zambia in limbo. They do not have the option of applying for resettlement in a foreign country, as the situation in their home country is deemed to be ‘safe’. It must be really difficult for these people. Imagine fleeing
war, possibly losing several family members, spending 8 years of your life in a refugee camp in another country, and then having to return. Would your house still be there? Would you find work? How would the government treat you? I cannot begin to imagine how hard it must be.
I have found out that my first task is to compile a database of all the ‘vulnerable’ people left in the camp (in conjunction with a representative from World Vision here). These could be young single mothers, unaccompanied children (most of who are staying with foster families, some of whom only let them stay so they are able to claim extra rations), the disabled and the elderly. The database will include the individuals needs, whether they want to return to DRC, and will hopefully lead to me developing lasting and sustainable solutions for these people. It is a very interesting and challenging task first up, I’ve got to say, and will involve me interviewing children. Most of the people working in the office are Africans - the office chief is Philippe, from DRC, who seems very approachable, and made it clear to me that if I have any suggestions
about anything the office was doing, I should not hesitate to contact him. The head protection officer, and my supervisor is Wanjiku, from Kenya, who is an extremely intelligent young woman, and I am looking forward to learning heaps from her. She told me more about the massive influx of refugees into Kenya fleeing the terrible violence in Somalia at present. There is something like a 300,000 of them currently living in the camps in Kenya, putting huge pressure on UNHCR resources that are already stretched across the African continent. If you have time, read this report about the problem - http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2009/03/29/horror-hopelessness/
- and consider donating to the UNHCR campaign for shelter for these amazing resilient people - http://www.givethemshelter.org/
. I intend on using money already raised in Australia to donate to that important campaign.
With the world cup starting, they have set up a bar at the office compound, and we had a great time watching the South Africa v Mexico game last night. Even though we are not in South Africa, world cup fever has definitely taken over Zambia. People treat all of the African countries as their own, and it has been great to experience the excitement
of the build up. The local beer - ‘Mosi’ is good (especially at $1 a stubbie), and I definitely had my fair share of them watching the game last night. The other staff just kept shouting me beers, which I have got to say made me feel extremely welcome. Even though I obviously stand out like a sore thumb here (I am yet to see another white person, let alone a red head) everyone has been extremely welcoming. When I go down the street, people treat me normally, which is great. The only thing I notice is the children giggling as I walk past, pointing at my hair!
I spent my first day at the camp today (Sunday) - check out the photos. It was such an interesting experience. I assisted to prepare a convoy of refugees who have indicated they want to return to the DRC. In terms of the camp, the refugees live in brick huts, and grow food to trade with each other. The children attend school at the camp, there is a hospital, a domestic violence centre, a counselling centre, a hospital, and a UNHCR office. Basically, UNHCR oversees all operations at the camp, along
with the government and world vision. There is a ‘council’ of refugees who meet everyday with representatives from the other organisations. More on all of that later.
So that turned out to be a bit long eh! That is my first week in Zambia, done. Whilst coming here by-myself has definitely not been easy, particularly saying goodbye to Julia and my family at the airport, I’ve got to say it has turned out well thus far. My living situation is good, I feel safe, and have not had any health problems at all (touch wood). There is obviously not too much food available here, particularly meat and vegies, but I will survive.
By your acts you shall be judged.
Finally, the UN's High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) released its annual global report, Global Trends, today - which this year shows the highest numbers of displaced people worldwide since the 1990s. This means there are now 43.3m people forcibly displaced around the world - including: 27.1m internally displaced people (IDP) and 15.6m refugees. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/jun/15/refugee-statistics-unhcr
. The map gives a good idea of just how few refugees Australia hosts, comparatively.
There are more photos below