In the rough almost lawless days of Zambia in the early seventies the two strongest virtues people needed were stoicism and a sense of humour in equal measures. I mean if you took the situation too seriously or you could not take the danger you would have left on the first plane without a backwards look.
As I mentioned in a previous blog the country was riddled with guns but starved of food and hope. A crazy situation considering the weather and fertility of the ground should have made it heaven for farmers. But that is another story. You literally took a risk every time you left your house and you never stopped your car anywhere near a ditch or other potential hiding places. You always ‘jumped’ any traffic lights if you possibly could get away with it.
It did not help that you could never be absolutely sure who was reliable and who was not. The police or army for instance often doubled up as the bad guys and you had to make a judgement every time you came to a road block. I always carried cartons of cigarettes, company T shirts and pens and a hidden stash of money just in case I needed to ease my passing.
The deserted country highways were the most dangerous. A friend was driving his new Rang Rover to a place called Chingola where his company had a factory when he got stopped at a road block by people in army uniform. It turned out they were thieves. They took his car and then all his clothes. They did not want to humiliate him, they just needed his clothes. Considering the top star prize on Zambian TV shows was a pair of jeans it was hardly surprising. He (and probably his car) was stripped naked in a matter of minutes.
The man eventually got home and, the following day he went to Kitwe police station. He was giving his report when one of the thieves walked past. He was out of his army gear. But he was wearing a police uniform.
Two weeks later I was on the Chingola road. It seemed deserted apart from the occasional burnt out truck where various drivers had fallen asleep at the wheel which was a regular occurrence. It was teeming with rain and as I came around one of the few corners I saw a road block in front of me. It consisted of collapsed sign a large tree branch and a bedraggled khaki tent. There was no way I was stopping. I drove around it and was accelerating away when the bullet hit. It went through the rear window and out the windscreen in front of the passenger seat. To this day I do not know if it was army or thief. Or both as I did not stop to ask.
As I said at the beginning sometimes you had to laugh. Another friend had an attempted break in but miraculously they had not cut the phone wire. He lay on the bedroom floor and phoned the police. They did not answer for ages but eventually a sleepy voice answered. ‘Help’ my friend pleaded ‘I am being robbed’. ‘Oh’, came the reply. ‘We have no transport, can you come and pick us up’. ‘No I bloody can’t’ my friend replied. ‘Oh, well tell them to go away’ came the advice. ‘GO AWAY’ my friend shouted at the armed robbers. And they did!
The police can also act in the most extraordinary way as I personally found out. We had neighbour problems. The house next door was owned by a Zambian with a very powerful stereo and an interesting choice of music. She had only one record which was ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton and she played it over and over again at top volume. It was shattering and eventually I thought ‘sod it I am ringing the police’ rather like you might do in say the UK.
I rang the police station and to my surprise they took it very seriously indeed. Are your neighbours black they asked me pointedly? Fears of being branded a racialist struck me but I answered ‘yes’. ‘Typical’ the policeman snorted,’ just because they have money they think they can behave badly but we will show them, can you collect us we have no transport’. ‘I do not want any trouble over this but could you please just reason with them’ I answered lamely.
I went around to the local station and they were waiting for me. There were two. They looked like Mike Tyson’s bigger brothers and they were armed to the teeth.’ Is this necessary’ I asked as they levered themselves and their rifles into the back of my small Fiat saloon. I drove them home. Every time we went over a bump their rifle barrels made holes in the roof lining. On arrival Jolene was still wailing and being told not to take her love to town.
Have you ever seen ‘Apocalypse Now”? You know the bit where troops zigzag through cover to advance on an enemy position? Well that is what these two policemen did. They advanced across the front garden bush by bush giving each other cover. They ended up pinned either side of the front door, weapons locked and loaded. The door opened and the poor women came face to face with two AK 47s held by two Mike Tysons. She nearly had a heart attack and we never heard Jolene ever again.
So there you go. You could never know what you were going to get but I can say with certainly that although life was sometimes scary it was never boring.
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