THE BALLAD OF THE (P)UBL(I)C LIBRARY
I walked past the *UBL*C LIBRARY
where the pavement is piled up in heaps
to the shop with non-see wood windows
by the SUPA NOVA LEBANESE EATS.
As I strolled past a man selling apples
I saw a gutter where dealers deal dollars
and a man keeps a rainbow in bottles
and a woman without any eyes.
So I Cha-cha-cha’d on to the Gift Box
wrapped and tied up with burglar bars
Where the cinema is doing big business
in ancient and violent dreams.
Then I ran past a man dressed in tatters
who was screaming out words of abuse.
I ran past the kids who run rackets,
guard your car for some glue or a coke.
The roads are called Freedom and Dancing,
The drains smell of death and disease.
There are bricks that are handy for riots
and off duty police who are thieves.
There are barrows of money for burning
and rich guys who’ll flog you some dope.
There are Daddies who promise you sugar
but ladies, you’ll only get Slim.
So ‘Zikomo Lusaka’ – we’re leaving’
We are off to the village again.
The background story of this poem from 1991 is of a time of riots and political change. I wrote it with affection and in a state of fury about the town I worked in. Zambia was suffering economic disaster. The currency was worthless. 99% of the people survived by working in the black economy. The liberation wars were ending but not their effect on Zambia. There were riots, an attempted coup, and at last a promise of new elections. Here is my explanation of the Ballad.
If you haven’t guessed – the sign outside the library had missing letters. I liked the idea of an ‘ubl clibrary’ and wondered what was inside it. Work had begun on the pavement but been abandoned. No one could afford to replace broken glass in shop windows so often they were boarded up. We had no idea what was really sold at the Lebanese shop.
Apples were imported and expensive so how did they get on the sold on the street? Men sat on the pavement surrounded by an arc of bottles of different coloured liquid ostensibly for shoe cleaning. Blind women were sent out to beg. I worked on Cha Cha Cha Road. It was named for a freedom movement and also a dance like toyitoying. Parallel with it was a road called the Freedom Way. The Gift Box was a posh shop fenced all around with thick black iron burglar bars. Cinemas could only show old films and the favourites were of Ninjas.
People with mental health problems lived in poverty on the streets and so did orphans and street kids. Dollars were exchanged illegally in the back streets. Finally the currency was devalued and wheelbarrows of old notes were exchanged for a few new ones. To survive women often had to accept the protection of a ‘Sugar Daddy’ Slim disease was the word for HIV/AIDS. Zikomo means thank you. It was a tough time to be in Lusaka. In my novel The Tin Heart Gold Mine Lara experiences these riots first hand.
I will be back in Lusaka when this post is published. I know it will be very different to this poem and I won’t recognise it. I failed to find any photos from 1991 so these are simply to give you a flavour of the place.