Like many people of European descent who were last in Zambia in the 1970s, I was wary of returning. I wanted to know what the country was like now, but I was apprehensive about facing up to the truth that I would be an outsider in the country I thought of as “home”. As Lee Marvin sung, “Home is made for coming from and dreams of going to …” – chasing dreams is futile. Going to a place one knew intimately can be alienating. People change over the years, so I knew that the “I” who’d go to Zambia now wasn’t the same as the “I” who’d left thirty-odd years before. Even if, by some magic, the country had stayed the same, the elderly version of me might have difficulty fitting in; I knew how to be young there, but I didn’t know how to be old. Still, I decided to risk it in October 2007. I’d done a quite a lot of travelling since I retired three years earlier and decided that the best way to approach Zambia would be to pretend that it was just going to be another interesting country. I took my husband with me, partly to see places I’d talked about throughout our long marriage, but partly in case I threw a wobbly. As the plane lost height and I saw Zambia’s trees and villages for the first time in 34 years, I burst into floods of tears. On the tarmac at Lusaka Airport I must have been an embarrassment, sobbing my heart out and laughing at the same time. It was EXACTLY the same as in October 1973.
A mutual friend had asked Heather Chalcraft to meet us at the airport and take us to my eccentric choice of hotel, the Fairview on Church Road. I’d selected it out of masochistic nostalgia because they’d put me there whilst waiting for a place in Highlands House, a government hostel, when I started working at the Central Statistical Office in 1966. Back then it had been called the Victoria Hotel and it was grim and grubby, run by a couple who were cashing in on Lusaka’s housing shortage immediately after Independence. (“My” room had a broken window and was a twin – I never knew who would be in the other bed and met some interesting people!) The hotel was unlikely to be much worse now and wasn’t. It’s now used as a training establishment for the catering industry and I have never stayed anywhere that cleaners came round, several to the hour, dusting the already spotless. Everyone was charming, but probably it wouldn’t be first choice for a long holiday and we were moving on. On that first day, reception called to say that a gentleman was waiting for me in the foyer – but no gentlemen knew I was coming to Zambia… Downstairs was Andrew Kashita, the husband of the younger sister of an old friend (so quite close really!). He gave me a hug, welcomed me “home”, handed me an envelope and told me he had to dash to a meeting. Caroline Kashita had been alerted by her sister that I was coming and listed the phone numbers of everyone I might have known who was still in Lusaka. Timidly I dialed the first number on the list, that of Peter Kasanda, an old student friend – there was a gasp and an explosion of incredulous laughter. I was in no doubt that I was home, whatever that meant.
The day we returned to Britain we had lunch with two old friends from university days.
In a pause in the hilarity my husband, who knows I’m an enthusiastic lone traveller, leaned over and whispered, “I know you’d like to come on your own” – six months later I was back and I’ve been going to Zambia as often as I can rustle up an excuse, most recently for the 50th Anniversary of Independence in October 2014.