Learning patience is easier here, but still hard

Feb 262009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — I had already spent a jet-lagged weekend here, strolling the dirt footpaths to the center of town and to the local shopping strip before I met the editor of the paper where I will be stationed the next year.

That may be why when I asked him if he thought journalists here would be receptive to the support I hope to offer, I found his answer as credible as I did.

"Yes, they will. Zambians are the nicest people in the world," he told me without hesitation.

Generalizations are always a little easier to take when offered by someone included in them, and I have heard it since: "We pride ourselves on being the nicest people in Africa," one woman told me.

I had already noticed that weekend: Strangers smile and say "good afternoon," as they pass, make pleasant small talk in shops, and if you ask directions, all but take you by the hand and walk you to your destination. I have never been to a friendlier city. At the same time, while I have been to some with as many problems — with poverty, homelessness, lack of health services, and all of the additional miseries that swirl around those — I have been to few, possibly none, where the literal signs of distress were as prominent."Sex with me won't cure AIDS," says one billboard towering over a busy road and featuring a picture of a half-turned crouching child of about 10 years old.

"Child Sexual Abuse — Stop it now!" says another giant billboard with a stark graphic of a hand reaching up between a child's dangling legs — there are many of these posted around town.

Together they refer to a genuinely vicious circle — child exploitation in a country of 12 million people that includes 750,000 orphans — many orphaned by AIDS and now all the more vulnerable to situations in which they will fall ill as well. And in a country fighting its third decade of the HIV epidemic, the first sign specifically addresses an enduring myth — that sex with a virgin child can cure the disease.

But little indication of the conditions occasioning these blunt messages have appeared in the newspapers or on television since I have been here, certainly none as prominently.

The front pages are occupied with news from which the above issues might stem in part — economic woes, bureaucratic plans and failures, but the link is not there.

Rather, the issues that make the front page and then produce followups are more often the doings of politicians — usually in the form of an ongoing and engaging drama of what one politician said about another and what the other said back.

Shortly after my arrival one of the dramas involved two women who are members of parliament and who got into an actual physical fight on the parliament floor.

Criticisms of this impropriety followed for days on the front pages.

But lost in that, the media representative of the National AIDS Council pointed out to me yesterday, was the concern voiced by one of the combatants that she may have been exposed to HIV, because the other woman scratched her. A perfect opportunity for a necessary follow-up story on how the virus that leads to AIDS can, and can't be transmitted, he said.

In the third decade of that epidemic here, and in a country where malaria is the leading killer (and, where, I am told, many of the journalists no longer see that as newsworthy, because they have been sick with malaria themselves), where the rates of maternal mortality are among the highest in the world, sometimes it takes a fresh perspective to see those opportunities, though.

So while I wait for immigration papers to settle into place that will allow me to settle into place at my host newspaper, it is not hard to be patient in a place where people are kind and helpful. At the same time, it is not easy to wait.