ZAM – Almost Famous


“So I’m  basically famous in Zambia?!”

I told my friend this last weekend as we were leaving a local club, promising that I would still be friends despite my meteoritic rise to zamstardom**

(**a while back the government took over a number of industries, or something like that I’m bad with details. Anyway, everything was patriotically named… zambeef, zamtel (telephone), zamseed, zamchicken, music is zampop…I’m hoping to keep the tradition alive and don’t want things getting lost in translation)

The night had begun like any other Saturday…

“I’m so exhausted.”

“There is no way I’m going out.”

“Oh, I will definitely in bed by 10PM.”

A previous Friday evening of playing in a post-work office soccer match, having post-game beers starting at 4PM followed by a little light dancing until 4AM had left me slightly fatigued early Saturday evening.

***Life advice: never, I repeat never, go out saying aloud that it’s most definitely going to be a quiet, early night. You will inevitably end up either running down highways at 5AM, waking up on a sidewalk, or possibly even crossing borders and dancing over into another neighboring country. Those aren’t my stories but they’re somebody’s stories and those somebodies probably said they would spend their night at the library followed by church and be in bed by 6PM. That the opposite undoubtedly occurs is a physical law of this universe. I think Einstein even wrote about it.

Anyway, there I was exhausted from an exciting preceding Friday night of dancing until wee hours, where I had really started hitting my zamstride in zamdancing to zampop, that I tiredly made the mistake of uttering those famous last words, so sure that my brain would explode or my heart would stop before allowing me to make it out a second night. The words left my mouth and traveled out into a vortex of the universe at the speed of light, surging through cables and crackling like lightning, not unlike a scene in a Disney sci-fi movie at the moment the cursed magic words are uttered simultaneously by two characters who then immediately start swapping bodies/lives.

Upon passing the period at the end of my sentence, I too had swapped bodies. But I didn’t know that yet. The night started out slowly enough. I met a friend for dinner before strolling down the shopping complex to meet another friend for a  low-key movie. Except that, in typical fashion, I was late (thankfully this is much more forgivable, possibly even encouraged, in Zambia compared to back home) and I was out of air time so I couldn’t call or text to announce my lateness. 35 minutes already into the movie, we decide to cut our losses. My friend (and usual partner-in-crime) was feeling markedly revitalized despite accompanying me step-for-step the previous evening (I later learned that they grew up here believing from a young age that sleeping is extremely lazy and could probably run around like the energizer bunny indefinitely on 3 hours of sleep a night). Meanwhile, I was feeling guilty for making us miss the movie, so I found myself agreeing to take to the streets, perhaps to a small quite bar, for one hour, a drink, maybe two.

Eying up the young prostitutes and other female patrons from my table on the porch outside the quiet bar, I shook my head, regretting having dressed so conservatively for my dinner-and-a-movie night. I’d worn cargo pants and even donned my glasses so I could see the movie picture clearly. At the bar, I was already white enough to be standing out without having to do it looking like a librarian. There was no way I was staying out late in this getup. But then came the suggestion, “I really want to dance, just for a song or two”. Okay, Energizer Bunny, I’ll accompany you, if only to get myself extra tired for my long winter’s (though, in reality, eternal summer) nap.

An Amstel or two later and this body swapping transformation was almost complete. In my stroke of luck, I somehow managed to trade lives with some young, hip Zambian dancing machine.

For awhile now, my roommate and I have been attracting attention around town–on the street, at church, at the market. Some call it the Muzungu (white person) Effect. You’re white, other people aren’t. It’s not uncomfortable or rude or dismissive. People are just somewhat struck and excited to see something different. Walking to work is a bit like a parade, waving back at children, at people hanging out of mini buses, at people on backs of trucks. “Look ma, an alien!” Sometimes I’m out talking to someone and their friend will tell me not to mind the strange look on their face, they’ve just never quite seen a white person before. I’m taking my ambassadorship very seriously.

Out at the bars, it’s a bit of the same. Not really with the waving, sometimes just starting at how the flashing club lights reflect off my pale, pale arms and face. It’s never unfriendly and comes from girls, guys, young and old alike. I usually remain comfortable by deluding myself into believing they’re just staring because they’ve never seen a white person dance so well, and not because you in no way fit in.

Well once again (and as Maura hints in her South American tales), what you believe you become. A couple weeks of hanging out at bars studying Zambian dancing and telling myself it’s okay,  you’re just awesome, I finally started picking it up. On Friday night a few people asked my Zambian partner-in-crime how they ever managed to teach a white person to dance! Perhaps the compliment of my life to date. If I spoke the local language better (read: at all) I would have translated Lady GaGa and informed them I was born this way… mixed with a little too much exposure to dancing in NYC. This was obviously a crowning achievement in my life/career here in Lusaka so far… That is/was, until Saturday night.

Back to the dance floor on Saturday, a few kind individuals continued to elevate my already naturally deluded sense confidence (thanks a lot mom and dad!). One such soul came in the form of an older, frighteningly serious Middle Eastern man, who may have spent close to an hour standing 4 feet away from my friends and, deadpan stare, before any of us noticed. I asked my friend if he had noticed the man standing still in the middle of the small dance floor and he just responded, “Oh that guy, yeah, he offered to pay me to dance with you earlier”. What?! Apparently in their culture, women are objects to be bartered and sold like a pack of zambeef, and certainly not even addressed. “Well I hope you directed him to the ladies of the night outside”.

Increasingly unsure about the growing crowd of Middle Eastern men (these folks really should take a lesson in kindness and anticreepiness from Zambians) we opted to leave the bar for another destination.

Final destination: East Point. Wouldn’t you know my favorite (can I say only one I know) Zambian artist was performing at a stage outside the club. Of course this is happening!

As a cultural and political note (because, as you can tell, this blog is deeply committed to the issues), allow me to mention that this artist, Dandy Krazy (almost as awesome as some artist’s names back home), skyrocketed to success after his song “Donchi Kubeba” symbolized the Patriotic Front opposition party as a motto in the Presidential Elections that took place last month. Donchi Kubeba (“don’t tell”) has become a huge catchphrase here after being taken up during the campaign.. it’s said frequently (and now applied to all kinds of conditions), written on buildings and scribbled on signs… accept their t-shirts, chitenges, food and bribes but Donchi Kubeba that you’re voting for the opposition party, not the corrupt incumbent…. For those of you not keeping up with Zampolitics at home, the opposition party won. Added bonus, one of my favorite songs, Donchi Kubeba, is now a bit of a national anthem. Another added bonus, I’ve been able to stay in Zambia. I’m told that if the incumbent party did win (an occurrence that very likely would have been due to corruption and a dirty election), I probably would have had to be emergency evacuated back to the states by this point because of the rioting that would have ensued. All of this would have been remarkably out of character for this peaceful country. The amount of change that these people were/are ready for makes Obama’s 2008 campaign look like child’s play and they weren’t about to let any additional governmental corruption get in the way of that.

I digress. So there I am in the crowd, my eyes popping out of my head at how ridiculously well this guy and his backup dancers can move. It’s almost superhuman. One girl gets up on stage from the crowd and makes Beyonce look like my mother. That’s not really an accurate simile, tboz can “get low” and she is not afraid to tell you that! A few songs later, this artist is singing out into the crowd, spots this lone white spot and decides to pull me on stage to dance with him. Not embarrassing at all. Luckily blanketed with my newly brandished dance confidence, my liquid courage in the form of Amstel and the previous sci-fi events of the night where I was transformed into a person who could keep up, I managed to enjoy myself. I got off the stage cursing the fact that I hadn’t brought my camera to capture my 35 seconds of fame. To make up for it, the group agreed to play my (and everyone’s) favorite song, Donchi Kubeba, after I requested it (my friend said they’d likely listen to me bc I was white) even though we’d missed it being performed earlier in the evening while I was being bought and sold by Lebanese pirates.

Fear not, friends, the universe has taken care of that photo op for me. At work today, a friend of mine comes by with the national paper. Who is pictured dancing about 10 inches tall with Mr. Krazy wearing a ridiculously lame, yet luckily conservative, outfit but yours truly…  Seriously, how did I get HERE?


2 responses »

  1. i’m sitting in the edit at work and literally zamBeaming at this story, the picture, and just the way i can visualize all of this going down. you, my friend, are legend. love and miss you. frame that newspaper!

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