Ciara Kenny

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There is life in Lusaka after all

Living behind a gate, it is often too easy to forget the spectacular sights and sounds of this city, writes Ceire Sadlier

'Almost getting carried off into the river with the ecstatic crowd when a Zambian king arrives on a barge topped with an enormous papier mache elephant is whimsical.'

Thu, Aug 15, 2013, 17:15


Ceire Sadlier

I avoid reading the weekend section of The Irish Times because it makes me groan jealously at the seemingly boundless choices of venues and events to be going to at home. Someone asked me recently for recommendations of what to do in Lusaka for a week. There is a museum in town, the highlight of which is the mummified fingertip of one of Zambia’s freedom fighters, but other than that, I was at a loss.

Those of us in Lusaka normally hit the road to see something interesting. The roads are long and mostly straight, which can be a bit monotonous. My parents lived here in the 70s and tell the story of an Irish couple who lived in Mongu in the west and were travelling to Lusaka for the St Patrick’s Day Ball. Three hours into their journey the car spun out of control before stopping in the middle of the road. Although shaken, the passengers decided to continue on to Lusaka for the ball. Three hours later, they arrived back in Mongu.

Sometimes the roads will offer up something out of the ordinary. Friends who recently made the same journey from Mongu to Lusaka had to stop to let a lion cross the road. An impatient vehicle behind them started hooting at the impromptu traffic jam. “Eh, hello, there is a massive lion in front of our car, would you relax!” More than once I have been speeding along, noticed a long black L shape sticking up in the middle of the road to realise just before I hit it, that it was a cobra with it’s head flared. Though I would probably get the same adrenalin rush from a herd of cows crossing the road, it is in those moments that I have realised that there is something spectacular about being here.

Listening to the screech of 11 million bats as they take off into the Kasanka sky, amazed that we escaped getting covered in bat shit is incomprehensible. Almost getting carried off into the river with the ecstatic crowd when a Zambian king arrives on a barge topped with an enormous papier mache elephant is whimsical.

And of course there is the occasional safari. I don’t remember a specific animal or dung pat that I’ve seen, but I remember all the things that have gone comically wrong. The excruciating heat of a thick canvas tent leaving my sister and I in sleep deprived, cackling hysteria. My father having to confess that he put fruit in his pocket from the breakfast buffet after two monkeys chased him at the hotel in Livingstone. The stony silence at the dinner table of a Luangwa Valley Safari Lodge after forming a mutual dislike with our guide of three days when he drove into a sand dune and made us get out of the jeep 50 metres from a lion and her cubs.

Sometimes it’s good to get back to Lusaka after those adrenalin-filled trips. If you look closely, there is a lot going on here too. Purple splashes are appearing on the high branches of the jacaranda trees, and soon all the lucky streets that they line will be covered in tiny, dry purple petals. The alien fingers of the frangipani trees are creeping out by the day until their pungently sweet flowers arrive. We call each other out and hush guests when the two purple crested louries that bounce around our tall trees sometimes craw from their perches and we get a flash of their inexplicably rich feathers, prettier than any ruby or emerald.

It’s easy where I live, behind a big gate, to think that there is no life in this city. But then you’re on the street, you’ll hear a quiet murmur of song approaching you. It gets louder and louder until you are immersed in perfect, deep, joyous voices. A group of people standing chest to back, hanging onto the sides of a flat bed truck are singing better than any trained choir. It’s the noise that gives away the heart of the city.

In September 2011, after midnight, we were lying in bed when the thunderous roar of hundreds of thousands of Zambians celebrated the announcement that the opposition party of ten years had won the election. Whether it was good or bad, it was change and the stadium-level cheers went on for hours. I didn’t think I’d ever hear anything like it again in my lifetime, but not long afterwards, in February 2012, Zambia’s Chipolopolo football team won the Africa Cup of Nations. We sat on the veranda in the dark and smiled as once again the elated country reveled in their success. I felt so lucky to be able to hear the uninterrupted emotion of a country whose people I felt it was hard to stir.

There’s more to Lusaka than a withered old finger after all.

Ceire has written articles during her last few weeks in Lusaka about making and keeping new friends abroad, missing old friends from home, and flying back to Ireland for her father-in-law’s funeral. Her previous articles for Generation Emigration can be found here, or on her own blog,