When the Truck Broke Down in Zambia
When life gives you lemons...
The early days of the four-week safari didn't feel much different than any road trip you'd take through the small towns in America. As our huge forest green safari truck you needed to climb into with a ladder rolled along through South Africa and Botswana, the roads were paved and air-conditioned mega malls were never more than an hour's drive away. When we left touristic Victoria Falls for Zambia was the first time I really felt like I was in rural Africa.
The malls and bright green highway exit signs trickled away from the landscape. The highways themselves were replaced by unevenly paved two-lane roads that seemed to stretch on endlessly into a perpetual horizon. There are trees lining the road and every so often, a warthog or giraffe would emerge. The most dangerous moments were when families of elephants would lumber across the road. We never hit an animal nor saw a casualty but the locals actually get very excited to see elephant roadkill. It only takes a few hours for word to spread among the neighboring villages and for people to come by and lop off some free meat to take home. A sad situation for the elephant and driver, but at least nothing goes to waste and the locals benefit.
The drives were getting longer and longer as we continued northeast across the continent. Most days we'd wake up around 4 or 5 a.m. and be on the road for 10-13 hours. This was because there simply were not campsites or areas of interest for hundreds of miles at a time, mostly villages and expanses of undeveloped land. This was another one of those long days- we were five hours into our drive from Lusaka on our way to Malawi. It had been a few days since our last game drive and we were all antsy from the protracted time spent playing card games and listening to podcasts. At the very least we wanted to make it to the campsite before sunset so we could have some time to walk around and stretch our legs before dinner.
I had spent nearly two weeks traveling in the safari truck and never had a mechanical issue. The possibility had definitely crossed my mind considering how essential the truck was to our travel plans but things had been going according to schedule so far. In the middle of a Freakonomics podcast, the truck crawled to a stop on the side of the road. I peeped out the window: no crossing elephants, no ladies selling bananas, no police. It thought it might be time for a bathroom break but when the driver popped that hefty hood, I knew something was wrong.
Without the fresh breeze streaming in through the open windows of a moving vehicle, the truck became oppressively hot. We had no idea how long we'd be stopped for, but considering I hadn't seen a town or even a market in at least an hour, I assumed it would be a while. In Africa, it's part of the culture to not want to disappoint others, especially guests or foreigners. Most of the time when I'd ask how far away we are, for example, I'd hear that we are "very close" or "arriving soon" not because someone didn't know or wanted to lie but because they didn't want to see me upset. It's a way of saving face, and before you think that it's an inconvenient or inefficient way to live, consider that the pace of life is much slower for a lot of Africans. Read Esther Ngumbi's short article for a firsthand account of Kenyan time. Eventually, I learned not to ask and to try to go with the flow.
As we milled around the edge of the road, not really knowing what to do, we were greeted by a steady stream of children cautiously walking towards us like the munchkins do when Dorothy lands in Oz. Like in most rural African villages, the children wore tattered clothes donated from America and not one of them had on shoes. At first, there were only a few of the brave little ones waving to us. We'd wave back and they'd watch us eagerly waiting for us to do something else. Seeing children has been one of my favorite parts about traveling- all they want to do is mimic you and it's too adorable for words. I'd spin around in circles, break out some funky disco moves, or jump goofily into the air and ten delighted children would do the same. Pretty soon, all the kids in the small village had joined the original group to see what all the excitement was about.
With the kids came the mamas a little farther back. They wore t-shirts tucked into patterned sarongs and talked quietly amongst each other. In the meantime, our driver tinkered with the engine with little success. A motorcyclist traveling down the empty highway pulled over and offered to help, dipping his head inside the monstrous truck to check things out. A lot of people in Africa and Asia possess a great deal of mechanical knowledge since a lot of people live too far from a city or don't have the money to pay for such services. After a while, he left to see if he could find an auto shop and replace a part for us. The sense of community and fraternity in Africa never ceased to inspire me.
Two hours into the breakdown, a man of about thirty wearing a white t-shirt and khaki shorts came sprinting towards us. He was the first person to approach us directly because he was a man and spoke the best English out of anyone in the village. He was the first person to tell us the name of this village of about fifty people: Petauke. He was the main man in charge in town, and ran the Kabvumbe Primary School across the road. The school is the only building around as everyone else lived in huts and cooked on fires outside. We spoke for a while about where we're from and life in Zambia. He introduced us to every single person in the village individually and told us a little about them. The women and children blushed as they struggled through a "hello" in English, but we all loosened up and had a laugh after they heard us try to pronounce their names!
After three hours in the village of Petauke, we got the engine running again and it was time to move on. The man we'd been speaking with grabbed my hands and said, "It has been such a blessing to speak to you. You can see we have a lot of need here. We can feed ourselves but our children need clothes and shoes. If you can find it in your heart to help us, please take my contact information." He proceeded to give me his phone number and the address of the school, the only address in town. Before he even said anything, I knew I wanted to help these wonderful people who spent an afternoon welcoming us into their town.
In rural parts of Asia and Africa, it's extremely hard to get clothes. A shirt you got for free running a 5k would sell for $30 USD, something a lot of families just don't have. I really wish I had brought along extra clothes and books to give away, but I didn't know to do so. Now, I'm staring the address on my computer and wracking my brain on how best to help. I've tried to WhatsApp the number he gave me but I remember that he had a flip phone and probably doesn't have apps at all. I've tried and tried to find an email for the school but there's absolutely no online footprint, predictably. I looked into sending a box of clothes to the school but it would cost almost a thousand dollars to deliver and I'm not even sure the package would make it to the right people. I want to help so badly but I really don't know how. I feel worlds away from the little Zambian village off the side of Road T4 even though the memories dance with vibrancy in my head.
I can recount the afternoon in minute detail but I don't know if I can effectively describe what it meant to me or its impact on my travels. I've been on many vacations in my life and experienced quite a few different cultures but rarely do I get the chance to really get to know any locals. Even so, it's challenging to have meaningful interactions with people from such a different lifestyle than your own. There are language, temporal, and cultural barriers (especially as a woman, it's difficult to speak candidly with a man or start a conversation with a woman without embarrassing her). Better yet, this wasn't a part of an organized tour or someone in the service industry. It was an unplanned, serendipitous moment of learning and sharing. Isn't this why we travel, to have meaningful experiences and make new connections?
If anyone out there has any ideas on how to send aid to the village, please let me know in the comments or shoot me an e-mail.