Flashback to Lusaka

It’s been a couple of years since my last Flashback post. There are several reasons for that, one of which is that our third post, following Guatemala, was by far the most difficult of all—and therefore the hardest to write about. But still, it was two years of my life. It happened. If I’m being honest with myself, I can’t just skip over it.

Sometimes, people ask me if it has all been worth it—all the moving, the hassles, the culture shock, the hardships. That’s a tough question to answer. I would say that on the whole, and on balance, it has been worth it. Except for one post.

Lusaka, Zambia in the early ‘90s was not worth it. 

Warning: this post is going to be a downer. There is just no other way to spin those two years. If you are looking for inspiration, you won’t find it on this page. But I need to write this in order to keep moving through my “memoirs.”

I will also note that this all took place over twenty years ago. I do realize that Lusaka has changed markedly since then (as have all hardship posts with the advent of the internet). And  of course I know that life was vastly more difficult for most Zambians than it was for my family. But this is not their story. This is simply my story of what it was like for my family in that country at that particular time.

We arrived in Lusaka the summer of 1992 with a seven-month old baby. I was bottle-feeding my daughter, Rachel, by that time. A decision which I now regret, but still, one which was certainly mine to make. It was easy enough in Guatemala and over home leave in the U.S. that summer, but as soon as I arrived in Lusaka, I found that there was no clean water at hand to mix with her formula. Our sponsor, said (with a bit of a sniff) “most mothers here breastfeed.” And I was supposed to know that how? From the official post report that described Lusaka as a “clean and attractive city?” From the CLO who simply ignored my letter with questions about the post?

This was the Old Foreign Service. Especially when bidding from another overseas post, as we did, we were almost exclusively limited to the information that the State Department was willing to provide. That consisted of a Post Report, a (usually outdated) booklet stored in the Community Liaison Office at each embassy. Written and produced by the State Department, of course. Not exactly an objective source.

Our office sponsor (my husband’s predecessor) had no children and no clue. He scheduled my husband’s welcome reception for the night of our arrival, just a couple of hours after we landed after an 11-hour flight with a baby. He said offhandedly he was sure someone at the hotel could watch the baby so that I could attend as well. Um, no. Not a good start.

My husband, inexperienced officer that he was at the time, had taken someone seriously when they said that he should be at post for July 4th. As it turned out, because everyone who could possibly get out of town was gone, the Fourth had already been moved to some time in August. People at post seemed somewhat mystified as to why we were there so early.

Our housing was not “ready” yet (what they actually did to make it “ready” remains a mystery to me) so they put us temporarily in the the home of an officer who had recently left post. It was just filthy. This person had clearly let the inmates run the asylum and not imposed any standards on her staff at all. I’d seen fraternity houses with cleaner kitchens.

That night, I found a relatively clean bathtub in a back corner of the enormous house, and prepared for a relaxing hot bath after a punishing couple of days. I turned on the tap and millions of black ants poured out.

Why I did not at that moment commandeer a car and drive myself and my baby right back to the airport to catch the first flight back to London boggles my mind now. Had I been older, wiser and wealthier I certainly would have. But I was just 25 and we were both mired in student loan debt—a major reason for bidding on a high-differential post. We simply didn’t have the financial security or resources available to us to make that kind of decision.

Rachel somehow managed to acquire the first of many (many!) ear infections on the flight over. She was quite sick, actually, and there was no Regional Medical Officer at post yet. Fortunately, someone scared up a South African pediatrician for us. Unfortunately, he prescribed Augmentin, a solution that would be repeated over and over again throughout the two years we were in Lusaka, messing with her immunities and permanently damaging her tooth enamel. It wasn’t until we got to San Salvador two years later that we were able to establish a regular relationship with a pediatrician who was shocked that she hadn’t had tubes put in her ears at least a year earlier. (Again, no internet at that time. I had no way to consult with Dr. Google!)

Our house, which our sponsor warned us in advance not to complain about—always a good sign—was a classic oversized Third World heap, complete with a “rape gate” and steel rebar on all the windows. The rebar was mounted on the inside, for some reason. The yard was at least an acre, surrounded by deteriorating cement walls with razor wire on top. There was a huge stand of bamboo in the corner that we were warned not to go near because it probably housed poisonous snakes.

But that wasn’t the best part. The absolute best part was the swimming pool in the front yard with no fence. Yes, the embassy actually put a family with a baby who was just months from walking in a house with a swimming pool and NO FENCE. Not that we wanted the swimming pool in the first place—it was shaded and nearly always too cold to swim in, yet we were required to keep it filled and to pay for imported South African pool chemicals. Oh, so that was what the hardship differential was for.

After a few months of back and forth, the embassy finally installed a three-foot high fence with a sliding latch that Rachel figured out in about two seconds flat. They refused to make the fence any higher, but at least we were able to get them to put a real lock on the gate. Nevertheless, I was always very careful to keep the doors locked when we were inside so that Rachel could not wander in the yard unattended. The housekeeper, who had eight kids including some very young ones, living in a small house in the backyard, was also concerned about the pool. She had been living there for years, and was thrilled that the new occupants were able to get anything at all installed. Before it went up, I had nightmares that I would find one of her children face-down in the pool one morning. I can imagine what it must have been like for her. But her kids were not the embassy’s concern, so there was no fence.

Lusaka was a small, isolated, “greater hardship” post. In those pre-internet days (and quite frankly before the State Department finally did something about the sorry state of its management cone) posts like this could go either way. Some missions had awesome staff who did their best to make life tolerable for employees and families. Lusaka upon our arrival was not one of those posts.

Our management officer had sent the entire budget for refurbishing furniture back to HQ two years in a row because he couldn’t be bothered to budget and spend it (or so I was told). At the time, my husband worked for what was then the U.S. Information Agency (now Public Affairs at State), and as such, we were at the bottom of the totem pole. So, our furnishings were even worse than the usual inventory: the chairs were covered with copious quantities of dog hair, and some had cigarette burns on them. Our kitchen table and chairs were a plastic patio set. There were barely any curtains to cover the hideous rebar on all the windows. The place looked like a prison, pretty much.

Watching a Winnie the Pooh tape alongside the lovely rebar. I realized while writing this post that I do not have a single photo of the outside the house. There's a reason for that!
Watching a Winnie the Pooh VHS tape alongside the lovely rebar. I realized while writing this post that I do not have a single photo of the outside the house. There’s a reason for that!

The aforementioned housekeeper was both a blessing and a curse. She was a very nice woman, and somewhat educated. Her husband was a janitor at the embassy. By Zambian standards, they were practically middle class. But she had eight kids, all crammed into a two-room house in the backyard. She worked short hours and was always asking for time off for one emergency or another. Because, you know, eight kids!

It is hard to describe the social system that exists in a very poor country to those who have not experienced it personally. It is actually quite complex and works in both directions: the servants are supposed to behave a certain way, and the employers are expected to behave in another. In Zambia, there was also a layer of British colonialism that had not yet worn off. Though it was the 1990s, Lusaka often felt like a script from a BBC drama set in the pre-WWII colonies.

I was young, and not from the kind of background in which anyone even had a cleaning lady, much less a house full of servants. Though I had had a weekly cleaning lady in Guatemala who called me, rather charmingly, “Doña Kelly” (more or less equivalent to the southern familiar-yet-somewhat-deferential “Miss Kelly”) I was in no way prepared for this new, frankly plantation-like, arrangement in which I was, in one way or another, responsible for a dozen people. Some diplomats at post (known as “old Africa hands”) were really into living like they were British colonial governors. I absolutely hated it.

Though we were halfway around the world from the U.S., Zambians simply did not look foreign to me. They looked like the black Americans that I grew up with, went to school with, and worked with in Nashville and Washington, D.C. They even spoke English, albeit with a different accent. But in highly stratified Lusaka, we were not even close to being social equals.

As a mzungu (white person) I was one of a few, easily identifiable, members of the elite. The household staff (and anyone else in a sales or service position) referred to me as “Madame” and my husband, worse yet, as “Master.” As an American, and especially as a white southerner, descendant of slave-owners, this made me very uncomfortable on several levels. I cringe a bit just thinking about it now.

A couple of months into the tour, Rachel and I both picked up giardia from the well that supplied the house. Apparently, the toilet that the housekeeper’s family, the gardener, and the guards all used had backed up into it. Ugh. Of course we boiled and filtered all our water (there was no bottled water delivery service) but it’s not hard to see how giardia could slip by that system.

It took a while to figure out why Rachel was so “colicky.” I think most people initially wrote me off as a first-time mother who couldn’t deal with a fussy baby. But they weren’t up all night while she screamed in pain. (And it’s not like I could Google it!) It was only after diagnosing me with giardia that the post doctor prescribed Flagyl for both of us. By that time, I’d lost about ten pounds that I couldn’t afford to lose, and Rachel had lost two pounds that she definitely couldn’t afford to lose. I have a photo of her from that time: she is a pale little thing, far from the robust baby she had been before we went to post. Though she recovered quickly, it was scary at the time.

As soon as we recovered from that episode, the Zambian power company, in one of those ridiculous tit-for-tat Third World political scenarios, started cutting off the power for eight hours a day for some unclear reason. Employees were at work all day, I was not. State Department people had generators, we did not.

Even before the power outages, all I had in terms of entertainment was exactly one Zambian TV channel that mostly broadcast the president’s speeches, and a few grainy VHS videos of Sesame Street and Star Trek sent by my father in law. (Remember, no internet!) With the electricity cut off, we were reduced to the BBC on shortwave radio—my only connection with the outside world—and a battery-powered kiddie cassette player. There was also an American ex-Black Panther, “Mike,” who incongruously deejayed a Zambian radio station a few hours every day, playing soul, R&B, blues, and fabulous African music. He was the best thing about Zambia, in my opinion!

So, don’t be telling me that you have run out of iPad apps for your toddler, people. For months, in our half-lit house, we read the same twenty books over and over again, built block towers, finger painted, splashed in a kiddie pool despite the dirty water, and drew pictures in chalk all over the house. I became endlessly more inventive in ways to entertain a bright, inquisitive toddler.

Cover it with art, wash it off, repeat. Good thing they couldn't cut off our water.
Cover it with art, wash it off, repeat. Good thing they couldn’t cut off our water.

Eventually, we joined a wonderful playgroup sponsored by the local international women’s club. That playgroup was the ONLY thing that kept me sane in Lusaka. We ran it almost like a preschool, twice-weekly, with a schedule of activities for the kids. I soon fell into my new (and long-term) role as an organizer of kids’ activities.

The playgroup in action in my enormous front yard. My husband hired a guy to build the playhouse out of packing crates.
The playgroup in action under jacaranda trees in my enormous front yard. My husband hired a guy to build the playhouse out of packing crates. It was pretty cute.

I don’t know what either Rachel or I would have done without that playgroup. I doubt I would have made it through the tour. I learned the true value of those old-fashioned expatriate women’s clubs during that tour, and never dissed them again.

You might wonder why I didn’t simply get a job at the embassy. In fact, I was asked on more than one occasion to apply. Skilled local staff was hard to find and jobs went begging. The answer is that though I liked my housekeeper, she did not have the same approach to child care that I did (because, eight kids!)

I am also virtually certain that she breastfed my daughter when I wasn’t looking. In a country with an estimated 60% HIV-positive rate at the time, this was no small thing. I asked a medical officer about it, and he said not to worry because “we aren’t sure that HIV passes through breast milk anyway.” Aren’t sure? Sorry, not good enough for me. Of course, this was the same medical office that thought giving then-experimental mefloquine to a baby was a good plan.

And there was the swimming pool to consider. So, it was more than the usual first-time-mother nerves that limited me to asking my housekeeper watch Rachel for no more than an hour or two at a time. Though we certainly could have used the income, embassy employment simply wasn’t on the table: my husband and I were in perfect agreement on this point.

My husband also had a hard time. He’s a bit OCD anyway, so life in a poor country was not easy for him under any circumstances. AIDS was rampant in sub-Saharan Africa at the time, a situation which affected him more than it did me. These were the bad old days of the epidemic. There was no medication: people simply wasted away from the disease. Three of his own employees sickened and rapidly died during that tour. Attendance at funerals became routine. Death was everywhere. My husband became quite depressed. We both did, really. I simply couldn’t afford to act depressed with a toddler to care for.

When we went home for R&R the next summer, Rachel visited her first toy store ever, and I had a minor meltdown in a mall food court. I simply couldn’t handle having so many choices after a year of isolation from consumer culture. Rachel and I spent about eight weeks back on the States, and then I had to make a decision. Lusaka was the first post that I almost did not return to. I was really that close.

Remember, we couldn’t Skype, or even email relatives back then. Phone calls were ruinously expensive. Airline flights were out of the question. When we took the first grandchild on both sides of the family back to Africa, we might as well have taken her to the moon. And I felt about as isolated, in terms of family support, as if I did live on the moon. If I had been able to look up Separate Maintenance Allowance online (or even known that it existed—did it exist back then?) I might have stayed in the States. But we had both agreed to bid on Lusaka, after all (even it had been based on largely outdated or outright false information) and we needed the money. So, I took a deep breath, got on the plane, and went back.

The fun continued. In the fall of that year, the housekeeper’s husband simply dropped dead in the backyard. Probably a heart attack. There was no such thing as an ambulance at post. My husband and one of the guards loaded his body into the back of our Toyota Corolla and took him to the hospital. They had to carry him in and lay him out in the morgue. It was apparently unspeakable. My husband came home and stripped on the laundry porch, throwing everything, including his shoes directly into the washing machine with bleach. He would not let me or Rachel near the car until he had thoroughly cleaned it as well. He will still not talk about that hospital to this day.

Zambian customs at the time were a bit unusual. Nothing actually belonged to the widow, including her own kids. In fact, it was common for a widow’s home to be looted by her in-laws, and the children taken as the cheap labor that they were. Nice. My husband’s boss, being an “old Africa hand,” immediately posted extra guards at our gate to keep the in-laws out. With the embassy’s help, and with her own sheer determination, the housekeeper’s family stayed more or less intact, and her children stayed in school. But of course, there were requests for money because her husband’s income was gone. And you know, eight kids! Eight!

(In Lusaka, I became firmly convinced that adequate health care for children and women, including contraception, is crucial for poor countries and the world in general. I wrote a post on this subject that made some conservative Catholic heads explode in a most entertaining fashion a few years ago. It’s archived here, and I still stand by every word in the piece. Every single word.)

Meanwhile, I experienced a traumatic miscarriage. At 14 weeks, I went in for one of the first routine gestational ultrasounds ever performed in Zambia—and there was no heartbeat. It was an especially unlucky type of miscarriage in which the baby dies at around three months and then there is a risk of maternal cancer afterwards. It was a nightmare. I was medically evacuated to Pretoria for a D&C, had to have my blood tested regularly for months, and was strongly prohibited from conceiving for at least a year afterwards. (Of course I couldn’t Google any of that, either.)

The stomach bugs, the ear infections, the depression, the power outages, and the mind-numbing boredom continued for the remainder of the tour. There were a few highlights: we did have some good friends at post, and an Indian restaurant opened up a few months before we left. We got sick every time we ate there, but it was an actual Place to Go and eat real food, so we went, and had a good time. And the playgroup continued to be my anchor as I developed close friendships with the other moms while we all kept each other sane. (That said, I have made good friends at every post—I didn’t have to go to Lusaka to find them!)

When our tour was up a year later, we couldn’t pack out fast enough. That was interesting too. The embassy first sent over a packout estimator who was clearly illiterate. They were required to get three bids, for some reason (because moving companies in Zambia are so expensive?). I called the embassy and said no way is this company packing my stuff. Their representative CAN’T READ. Incredibly, they would not assure me that the company would not be hired. The company they did hire stacked all our paintings in the driveway and then almost backed over them with a truck. I ran out yelling at the driver to stop and saved them. When we unpacked our stuff later, red Zambian dirt actually poured out of some boxes. I don’t even understand how they managed that. My new housekeeper certainly didn’t.

On departure day, we packed a bottle of South African bubbly and a couple of plastic cups in our hand luggage. As soon as the airplane wheels left the tarmac, we popped it open and celebrated. We didn’t care who knew that were deliriously happy to be leaving—and getting back to Latin America, pronto.

So that, dear reader, is the story of a hardship tour in the Old Foreign Service. Would we have gotten more out of that tour if we had not been practically broke on arrival? Of course. Would have it been easier if we had both been working? I recall one officer saying that she “barely noticed” the power outages because the lights were back when she got home in the evening. So, yeah, I think it would have been easier. Would it have been more tolerable if we had not had a small child who got sick all the time? Absolutely. Would it have been less of a disaster if we had been older, more experienced, or had wealthy parents who could afford to visit us or to help us out? Why yes, we would have been among the crowd who escaped to Lake Victoria, to (child-free) safari parks, or to Harare or Cape Town on the weekends. That would have altered my perspective quite a bit, I think.

But we weren’t any of those things, and so that tour was the longest two years of my life. Many posts are hard—that’s why they call them hardship tours!—but most have their compensations: Bolivia and Guatemala most certainly did. This one did not. Lusaka was not worth it. Not to me.

And so, that chapter is now complete. We knew that our next tour, San Salvador, would be an improvement. But we did not know that it would ultimately turn out to be one of our favorite posts!

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