Back to Articles|
Essex man with a mission
WE were flying over Zimbabwe, en route for Lusaka in Zambia. It was a bright morning and Africa was spread out beneath us, blue and brown, but mainly brown, and we were having a few sherbets. "Can anyone see the sea yet?" asked Ian Dury, the rock singer and actor, on this, his first assignment as a Unicef celebrity ambassador. Before we began our descent into Lusaka, we had to fill out some immigration forms. "How do you spell Unicef?" he wondered aloud.
At the immigration desk in Lusaka airport there was a little difficulty because three of our party had failed to obtain visas beforehand. Step forward Ian Dury, who tried to "slip the geezer a cockle", but was spotted immediately by the head Unicef welcomer, who started doing star-jumps on the spot and persuaded Ian to put his cockle back in his sky rocket.
I only heard about this later. At the time I was queuing at "Luggage Enquiries" to find out which part of Africa my typewriter had been sent to. The next night, the man from immigration walked in the bar where Ian and Del, his minder, were enjoying a few "scoops", and asked them for a job.
Next morning, I was sitting in the back of a white Toyota Landcruiser with Derek the Draw. Del has long grey hair and a prominent beer gut. We were driving slowly through George Compound, a poor, "informal" suburb of Lusaka, where 150,000 souls scrabble for a living.
"I'm beginning to realise," said Del, gazing out of the window at the passing show, and being serious for a moment, "that you just don't fully perceive what Third World poverty is actually like when you see it on the telly. You just don't get that 3D effect." I agreed with him, and we settled back to enjoy it while we could.
Ian Dury was in the front seat. From behind, Ian's large, grey, shaven bullet-head contrasts sharply with the driver's tiny, round, black one. To millions of people around the world, Ian Dury was the man who sang Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick; but to cognoscenti such as myself, he is also the singer who wrote and sang the immortal song about his love affair with Lena in the back of his Cortina ("A seasoned-up hyena could not have been more obscener. He took her to the cleaners and other misdemeanors, and he got right up between her rum and her Ribena"). When I was introduced to him at Heathrow Airport, I proffered my hand and said, "My Liege. I know every song on your New Boots and Panties album off by heart." "I wish I did," he said sadly.
Our astonishing convoy of Unicef Landcruisers swept through the crowds and into the forecourt of a dun-coloured community health centre. We disembarked and were led in to a classroom with a high tin roof. Inside, more than 40 Zambian prostitutes (we had been asked to refer to them as "commercial sex-workers"), wearing identical green T-shirts, were sitting bolt upright in rows and beaming at us.
After we had been individually introduced to them and invited to sit, they rose, filed quietly out of the room, then came jogging back in, sideways, and singing with all their might. The song was called Balantangilila, which means, "God guides us in everything we do". I can believe it, too. Under that tin roof the unexpected power and scalp-twitching harmony of their joyful voices was stupifying. There can be few purer, more sublime sounds in all the world than that generated by a choir of illiterate African women.
After socking us with a few more numbers, they sat down again and spokeswomen stepped forward to tell us something about their work, in English and Chinyanja. Apparently, these lovely ladies were sort of poachers-turned-gamekeepers. On their nights off they go about in performing troupes, singing, dancing, distributing condoms, and putting on short, one-act plays warning the general public about the dangers of promiscuity, unprotected sex and certain traditional sexual practices.
One of these practices, they said, is the preference of Zambian men of all classes for the feel of a dry vagina. Women oblige them in this by treating themselves with herbs and stones prior to congress, and, unfortunately, the HIV infection is transmitted via the abrasions which result from the inevitable wear and tear. (To give an idea of just how prevalent HIV Aids is in Zambia, it is perhaps enough to say that life expectancy at birth is just 44 and that, among a population of just over nine million, there are approaching half a million orphans. Someone has estimated that your average urban Zambian gets invited to two funerals a week.)
After telling us about themselves, the spokeswomen invited us to ask questions, and I asked them whether anal sex was popular in Zambia, and therefore a factor in the transmission of HIV. After my question had been translated into Chinyanja, everybody looked at me as if I was some sort of lunatic.
Our Unicef-organised delegation consisted of Ian, Derek the Draw, some Unicef officials, three journalists, a photographer, and Robert Scott, vice-president of the Sheraton hotel chain. Mr Scott is the instigator of "Check Out For a Child", a charitable scheme whereby each hotel guest is invited to contribute a dollar to Unicef's universal immunisation campaign. The dollar is automatically added to the bill as a voluntary contribution, so all the guests have to do is resist the temptation to strike it off again. To begin with Ian and Del referred to him as "the Septic" (septic tank = yank); but, sadly, Robert turned out to be a remarkably unassuming man, unconcerned about whether his fund-raising scheme accrued Brownie points for the corporation or not. When we realised this, we felt that "Septic" was a bit disrespectful and referred to him as "the Petrol" instead.
Much as we enjoyed meeting and mingling with these singing ceiling-inspectors ("I think I'll do a couple of voice-overs and buy a gaff round here," enthused Ian), they had only been laid on as a side-show. The main reason for ours and Ian's visit was to witness the Unicef-sponsored National Immunisation Day (NID), in which every Zambian child under five was to be given two oral drops of live polio vaccine.
The NID was part of the World Health Organisation's campaign to eradicate polio from the world by "blitzing" strongholds of the wild polio virus with mass vaccination drives. The most spectacular NID to date took place in 1995, when 93 million Indian under-threes were orally vaccinated in a single day. Cases of polio paralysis reported globally have now fallen from 350,000 in 1988, to just under 40,000 this year. These were mostly in Asia.
Normally, Ian Dury is reluctant to involve himself with charity; but one of the reasons he has lately agreed to put himself "under manners", as he puts it, and become a Unicef ambassador, is that he has had polio himself, contracted at the age of seven from an Essex swimming pool. He is not your ordinary celebrity "walkie talkie" - as disabled people call the rest of us.
In the run-up to the NID, a television and radio advertising campaign was launched, with the catch-phrase: "Bye Bye Polio". This was eagerly taken up by the expat community, who took to saying it whenever they mis-hit a golf ball; but many non-golfing Zambians found it a little patronising. The poster campaign in the "Hard to Reach Areas" was unfortunately limited by the fact that large pieces of paper are a something of a novelty in the countryside and tend to get stolen immediately. And no one has got any drawing pins to put them up with anyway. And even if they had, pinning them to the side of a mud or grass hut is no easy matter.
In the afternoon they drove us up to Ruanshya, a small town in the Copper Belt, built mainly in the 1950s, by the look of it, to take part in a civic march heralding the start of the NID. Led by a party of local notables, including an American evangelist with big hair, a prominent Rotarian called Mr Figov, and the town mayor, we joined about 200 people as they set off from the recreation ground towards the Civic Centre. I fell in with two small schoolboys who were walking along quietly together, holding hands.
"Do you know what polio is?" I asked the slightly larger one. "Pollyo is a disis which cripples you and affects different parts of the body," he answered promptly, as if he had been rehearsing it; which indeed he had, for later I heard him repeat the same sentence in a drama that he was performing before assembled dignitaries on the steps of the Civic Centre. His name was Godfrey Bwalya. Guessing that he was about seven, I asked him how old he was. "Fourtin," he replied.
"Fourteen?" I said, in disbelief.
Here, his teacher came alongside, fell into step, and introduced himself. He was Michael Banda, a teacher at the primary school. Nice man. I liked the cut of his jib.
"Is this boy really 14?" I asked him. "He looks a lot younger than that to me." Mr Banda told me that owing to difficulty in obtaining enough food to eat, three-quarters of the population were suffering from malnutrition and were consequently stunted.
He told me about a German missionary, new to Africa, who went into the tailor's in Ruanshya one day and became outraged at what he thought was the use of sweated child labour in the shop. He lost his temper completely, and physically threw three of the workers off the premises - one of whom turned out to be a 36-year-old married man with five children of his own. Then Michael turned to me and said, with a note of triumph in his voice, "Did you notice that my leg has been amputated?" I studied his gait for a moment. "Was it amputated above or below the knee?" I wondered. "Below," he said, apologetically, and bent forward to give his trouser leg a little karate chop to show me exactly where it had been sawn off.
When the march arrived at the Civic Centre, we sang the Zambian National Anthem and the evangelist with the big hair made a Henry V-type speech about serving in the battle to defeat polio. Then Ian donned the official, blue health-workers' apron and immunised the first child. Her name was Paarth Kuntawala and she was 18 months old. Ian was a bit glassy-eyed after that.
The following morning they took us out to a Mission Hospital to watch the children being immunised. After the parents had registered, the nurse gave them a brief educational talk about polio, then the child's mouth was held open and two drops of live vaccine were squeezed out of a dropper. The vaccine had a bitter taste and some of the children cried.
In the afternoon they drove us out into a rural area and we visited an immunisation post which consisted of a young girl standing beside a table in a silent clearing in the forest. It reminded me a bit of polling day in our village in Devon. We hung around in case anyone should turn up, and presently a shimmering man on a shimmering bicycle was seen pedalling slowly towards us along the hot, dusty path. A punter. In fact two punters, for when he drew up we saw he had one baby strapped on his back and another tied to the saddle.
His name was Johnny Kiombo Chikanga and he'd cycled 15 kilometers to get there. He explained that his wife had stayed at home to look after the plot of virgin bush they were clearing, a plot that had been recently allocated to them in a government resettlement scheme. At the moment they are living under two pieces of corrugated tin leaned against a tree trunk, and they are saving up for a fence. If I happen to be passing in September, he said he might be able to let me have a chicken or two.
"How old are you, Johnny?" I asked him. "Twenty," he said. Then he thought again and said, "No, I'm 41."
After the NID was over, they took us to a boarding school for disabled people, many of whom were disabled by polio. A nun led us into the assembly hall and groups of pupils took it in turns to dance for us. First there were small disabled children dancing in front of us, then medium-sized disabled children and then large disabled children. Most of the time they were just a blur. Afterwards, Ian compared calipers with them. They were very impressed with his because his were red instead of the usual brown or black. Back in the Landcruiser, Ian said to Derek the Draw, "I copped a wobbly chin in there, Del." And Del said, "Yeah, mine was going up and down like a bleeding yo-yo."
Finally, they took us to an orphanage on the outskirts of Lusaka. About half the 160 orphans were HIV-positive. When we arrived, they sang a song for us that went: "If you give love, you will receive love, and everyone will have enough." Then, at one of the nun's suggestion, we all held hands in a large circle and did the Okey-Cokey. Derek, who must be the unfittest man in Wimbledon, said it nearly gave him a heart attack. ("It's that 'Put Your Whole Self In' bit that really gets yer," he complained). Ian just stood there crying his eyes out.