Big changes, but everything still the same

Mar 232010

Editors Note: Zarina Geloo returns to the Times of Zambia sixteen years later.

Everything seems to have changed since I was last the Times of Zambia, it was a little unnerving, but I realised very quickly that actually, things are still the same.

What struck me first was the eerie quietness of the place. No clatter of typewriters, the rat –a- tat of the telex machines, no shouting to be heard above the din that made up life in the newsroom. It comes home to me what a long time ago, it was (1994) when I closed door to the Times of Zambia, never imagining for one moment that I would be back.

Over the years , I have gone from one news room to the next, each one different,  each one a new experience. But somehow I always thought the Times of Zambia newsroom would remain familiar to me. It was here that I lived and breathed for the most part of my young life.  It was here that I developed and formed opinions as an adult. 

I look around nervously looking for familiar faces, there are none.  Everything  has changed I thought. And then I see it. My  chair, the one with a missing knob on one of  its leg, making it lean to the right. In the second trimester of my pregnancy, I had taken off that knob so that I could ‘balance’ my huge tummy. My baby lay in an awkward  position, his head or feet, was always pushing against my bladder, causing me to run to the toilet every 10 minutes. Hoping to ease the pressure on my bladder , I took off the knob making the chair ‘naturally’ wobble  to the right. I still sit like that to this day, leaning slightly to my right.

I tell the reporter the story of the chair. He is a bit uncomfortable. I realise a little too late that for many Zambian men, discussing pregnancy, especially with a stranger (and an older woman at that) is a social taboo.  He rather shyly offers to give me the chair, so that I can ‘feel at home’. I smile graciously and decline.

I  move further down the newsroom. I see an old wooden desk, worn and full of ragged edges but I recognise it. It as a telephone number etched deep into its wood. The telephone number of my boyfriend who would later become my husband.  I wrote it down in 1984 meaning to put it my note book. I never did, instead during moments of idleness; I would go over the number with a pencil again and again until it became ingrained in the wood.

I recount this little bit romantic ‘history’ of the desk to the young reporter. She enjoys the anecdote and asks me if he had ever changed his number. I tell her that he had the same number until he died. She says a quick sorry and changes the subject.  Like for many Zambians, death not a subject for social conversation.

I go to the library and am on more familiar ground, nothing seems to have changed. It’s still musty and smells like old newspapers. The librarian still cuts and pasts  articles into a book. It is a tedious job, 20 copies of newspapers and she painstakingly cuts each and every story out and pastes them according to topic in a book. Technology has not reached here it would seem.

I look around, she is busy and does not look up at me. I find what I am looking for. ‘My book’, the one that has all the cuttings of the stories and columns I had ever written while I was on the Times. Among them is a photograph of me,  all of 17, trying to strike the pose of a seasoned reporter, leaning over my typewriter as though deep in thought. The librarian leans over and remarks, that’s  Zarina Geloo she used to work here, she was very stubborn  that girl, she was the only female reporter in the newsroom for many years. She even used the men’s toilet! She tut tuts in disapproval.  I bite my lip to stop smiling, I ask where Zarina is now. “ah maybe she is even dead , we have not seen her for many years, you know how it is these days , when you don’t see someone for a while, just know they have died.”

The librarian would come back later in the day and profusely apologise for not recognising me, offering me half of her boiled mealie cob. I smile graciously and accept her gift. By now the entire paper knows that a former staffer is back and there are a lot of excuses to come and have a peek at the matriarch. I am  warmly welcomed.

As the days roll on, I realise that though I thought a lot had changed, superficial perceptions are still the same. I am being asked why coach health, it’s too depressing. It’s not what people want to read. It also goes against the social norms to talk about death and diseases.  People do not want to talk about sex with strangers or with each other. Abortion is taboo, so are gay rights, in fact Zambia does not have gays. Maternal mortality is here to stay and the millennium development goals are just that, wishful thinking. Its politics that is important, that’s what builds careers. This is the view of reporters, young and old. 

While the newsroom has computers and no longer sends stories by telex and reporters can save important numbers on their blackberries, the more I listen to these views, the less apprehensive I am about the changes I see, I am on familiar ground, the people have not changed and I smile, graciously.