Friday, September 23, 2011

Leaving Zambia

I am sitting at the upstairs bar of Lusaka Airport. I flew in this morning from Livingstone, and then walked across the tarmac at the back of a cavalcade come to collect Michael Sata, who has finally won his long campaign to become president. The black Mercedes and the convoys of Land Cruisers that follow them have since been replaced: with each line-up of cars that goes, a new one arrives. I am watching the Tanzanian delegation step down from its Lear jet, the women dressed in bright orange and green; the Botswanan Lear jet is parked behind it; and now a third Lear jet arrives, unmarked. Must be the spies.

It's a day of change and thunderous car horn tooting. During the ten short days of my stay here, I have wondered at the endurance of Zambian car horns, and met only one person who openly supported the old government. For the most part the election period has been a peaceful one. I had thought that the endless calls for peace - from politicians, religious leaders, the media, and during the Dag Hammarskjöld commemoration - might in fact be a prelude to violence. Why else would everyone be going on about peace so much? But it seems not. Zambia may after all retain its reputation as the most peace-loving of African states.

When I was in Ndola for the Hammarskjöld commemoration, I got caught up in a political rally. Everyone had told me to avoid these, for fights flare up very quickly. But before I could get out of the way, I was surrounded by minibuses, all filled with young people hanging out of the windows, pretending to row with invisible oars, pretending their buses were canoes. To those like me on the street, they repeated what I later came to realise was the shorthand symbol of the campaign: they held their index fingers to their lips and went ssshhh. It means, 'don't tell them.' Don't tell the government, because we're taking their votes.

I hear that in the last couple of days, leading up to the announcement last night that Sata had won, there was unrest in the streets of Ndola - there are reports that shops and market stalls have been damaged. Apparently, the unrest was caused by perceived delays in the official vote count. Such was the suspicion that the election would be rigged, that any delays or irregularities in polling have been seen as government interference.

The locals refer to political unrest as 'noise'. It is a bit noisy in town, they will say. It was a bit noisy, too, when the minibuses surrounded me. But only noisy in a celebratory way: it was the loudness of anticipation, change. The crowd waved to me, and demanded a wave back. A day later I left Ndola, and today I leave Zambia. It may well be best to avoid political events, but in a way I wish I was going into town to join in the noise, to witness the celebration. It would be nice way to wave goodbye.

Ssshhh, says the man at the back