The Ballad of the Public Library

Ruth HartleySouthern Africa, Zambia6 Comments


I walked past the *UBL*C LIBRARY

where the pavement is piled up in heaps

to the shop with non-see wood windows



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.


A view of Cairo Road, the main street through Lusaka with the railway line to the east

Lusaka Bus Terminus – a later view tp give an idea of the city

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.

6 Comments on “The Ballad of the Public Library”

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Thank you Jon – I am glad that you think so. I plan on publishing my African poems as soon as I can this year.

  1. Tia

    I love the poem, Ruth. The humour and the affection come through to me clearly. I’d love to hear how your impressions of Lusaka have changed after your recent trip.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Hi Tia – Yes I will both tell and write more about my experiences in Zambia. Hopefully, today’s new post will give a flavour of it.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Thank you Emma – I always worry that perhaps I have tried to explain too much but then I also worry that perhaps the poem seems obscure because its about somewhere different.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.